The Cumulative Effect of Stress

Career Transition and Stress

I've experienced several career transitions in my life. Some were relatively easy for me to manage, and I took the job upheaval in stride. I kept a positive attitude, found another job pretty quickly, and looked back on the transition with a satisfied sense of accomplishment. I kept plugging and made it through! Way to go, Lynn.

Two of the career transitions have felt very different, though. They were full of anxiety, frustration, and bouts of despair. At times I doubted that I would ever find another fulfilling job. This doubt colored my perception of how much I had accomplished so far in my career, and made it more difficult to me to approach my job search with confidence.

Why were these experiences so very different?

Why were some job transitions relatively painless, while others were downright traumatic? It had to be more than just "attitude." I'm generally a positive person with a hopeful outlook on life, and this has been the case throughout my career.

The answer: Stress! (In other areas of life)

During the most recent transition that was difficult to navigate, I was simultaneously dealing with the illness and eventual death of a close family member. At the same time, a chronic medical condition flared up bringing frequent, intermittent pain. Then a disagreement with my in-laws erupted which led to an extended family member staying with us for a bit. To top it all off, my spouse went from being paid annually to becoming an hourly employee, creating uncertainty in how much overtime pay would be coming just as my income was in question.

The fact that career transitions are stressful is well-documented. From the research of Nancy K. Schlossberg dealing with transitions to the work of Barrie Hopson, John Adams, and John Hayes in their book chapter, TransitionUnderstanding and Managing Personal Change, there have been numerous studies documenting that career change is indeed stress-inducing.

How much stress have you accumulated?

However, it helped me to think about the other stressors in my life which happened around the same time as my career shift. For this aspect, I turned to a "stress scale" developed in the late 1960s by Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. You look at a list of 43 life events and identify which ones you have personally experienced in the past year. Then you add up the number of "life change units" corresponding to each event in order to gauge the accumulating amount of stress.

Using my recent career transition as an example, I experienced the following events:

  • 36 units: Change to a different line of work
  • 44 units: Change in health of family member
  • 63 units: Death of a close family member
  • 53 units: Personal injury or illness
  • 38 units: Change in financial state
  • 29 units: Trouble with in-laws
  • 25 units: Change in living conditions

Added together, I racked up 288 "life change units," which is quite a lot! 150-299 units correlates with a 50% (moderate) risk of illness, and at 300 units the risk of stress-induced health breakdown approaches 80%.  No wonder this career transition was more stressful than previous ones!

Put your career transition into perspective

The purpose of this post isn't to overwhelm you with a quantitative measurement of how incredibly stressed out you are! The goal is to put your job search stress in context, take other life stress into account, and be compassionate with yourself.

If the anxiety seems overwhelming, try to remember that the stress in different areas of life can accumulate and make a job change harder than it ordinarily would be. If this transition takes longer or feels bumpier, that's understandable given the other stress you are dealing with. Be kind to yourself, practice self-care, and know that in time life will get easier!