The March 2009 edition of The McKinsey Quarterly includes a poignant essay by Ian Davis, the firm’s worldwide managing director. This piece, titled “The New Normal,” addresses our fundamentally changing business landscape, which Davis aptly describes as a “restructuring of the economic order.” Indeed, things have not felt normal for some time. Many MBAs in our community are being forced to reconsider their professional identities at a time when most of us are just hoping to ride out the current storm.
There is no doubt that the recession and consequent upswing in unemployment have us all feeling unsettled. Data from an American Psychological Association (APA) survey released last October indicate that money and the economy top the list of stressors for eight out of 10 Americans. This research also points to higher levels of stress-related physical and emotional symptoms, such as fatigue, irritability, and feelings of anger. We are coping with these feelings by overeating and indulging in unhealthy foods, or by skipping meals altogether. What’s more, a recent National Sleep Foundation poll finds that one-third of Americans are losing sleep over the state of the economy and their personal finances. If these higher stress levels are prolonged, APA warns, we risk developing serious illnesses. None of these statistics should surprise you.
Even those who have weathered prior recessions are feeling a difference between this and earlier downturns. Standard belt-tightening has been overshadowed by deeper concerns about providing for basic needs and pessimism over the world’s longer-term economic prognosis. Many working adults in the US were raised in relative prosperity and now must rethink what standard of living will be possible in the future. For some, the careers that drove this prosperity are no longer sustainable due to restructuring and contraction in certain job sectors.
Clearly, many of us feel that these changes are outside of our control. As we watch the daily shifts in the financial markets and ponder the fate of our retirement accounts, a sense of powerlessness can quickly set in. Unfortunately, we seem to be focusing too much attention on things we can’t control and not enough on steps we can take to feel better. Consider the following domains, in which you have the ability to take concrete, positive action:
Physical Health: Though it seems obvious, busy professionals frequently ignore the fact that one way to mitigate stress is to maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes getting enough sleep. An average healthy adult has a basal sleep need of seven to eight hours per night. However, this need can increase due to the effects of poor sleep and your optimal daily level will depend on sleep quality. Regular exercise is another key to minimizing stress. Studies have found exercise to be effective in lessening depression, in addition to decreasing the risk of heart disease and other health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a minimum of two and a half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity weekly, plus muscle strengthening activities, for adults. Even mild exercise can elevate mood, suggesting that regular physical activity of any kind is beneficial. Moreover, sticking to a healthy diet strengthens the immune system and contributes to an overall sense of well being. The bottom line is that you need to pay even more attention to your health during periods of increased stress like the one we are now experiencing.
Mental Health: Controlling our emotional reactions to the current crisis may seem difficult. After all, who doesn’t feel angry or depressed by the carnage on Wall Street? Intraday fluctuations in the Dow reveal how quickly our sentiment can change and we’ve been rocked by a series of financial scandals that remind us how terribly people can behave. This constant stream of bad news triggers a heightened state of arousal in which the physical sensations we experience distract us from what we really need to be doing, which is to focus on managing everyday responsibilities in our work and personal lives. Research studies show that increased arousal can enhance performance up to a certain point. Beyond this threshold, however, additional physical and psychological activity interferes with performance, leading to poorer outcomes.
What this means is that we all need to be mindful of how we are reacting to what is going on around us and the way it makes us feel. One way to accomplish this goal is to stop paying so much attention to the business news media. These outlets cover the minute-by-minute state of the financial markets and seem only to focus on the doom and gloom of negative economic indicators. Unless you are a trader, you will be less frustrated if you reduce the amount of time you spend surfing online news or watching CNBC. If you must stay informed, pick a specific time of day to check the headlines and limit yourself to this window.
Another simple way to manage negative emotion is to intentionally engage in pleasurable activities that you would otherwise enjoy. You might not initially feel like meeting friends for dinner or going to the movies, but when you force yourself to venture out your mood will often lift once your brain registers that you are doing something enjoyable. If finances are a concern, take advantage of good weather and go for a walk. The combination of being outside and getting some exercise can be an effective stress reliever. Of course, if you are experiencing prolonged feelings of anxiety, depressed mood, or a sense of hopelessness, speak with your doctor about treatment options.
Career Health: Believe it or not, one factor that you have under significant control is your career management process. This may seem counterintuitive and I am not suggesting that job opportunities are robust in all sectors, or that now is the perfect time to switch careers. Nonetheless, the fundamentals of good career management are the same now as in a strong job market. This means that you need a clear vision of your longer-term career goals. Developing and refining that vision requires careful self-assessment and research to both validate your target and determine how feasible it is to reach at this stage in your career. This due diligence includes an exploration of alternative pathways to achieve your goal, especially because the current economy may force you to seek a bridge job if your first, or second, choice is not possible. Once you have a target list of opportunities, spend time thinking carefully about how you intend to pitch yourself to each audience on that list. Now more than ever, employers are feeling risk averse when assessing candidates, meaning that it is essential to present a convincing argument about your value proposition.
Also remember that your network of fellow alumni is 37,000 strong. Because so much hiring at experienced levels happens via personal referrals, it behooves you to tap into this amazing resource. Furthermore, by focusing attention on building relationships within our professional community, you will necessarily decrease the amount of time spent focused on the day-to-day stress of the economic crisis.
The steps listed above comprise the basic career management framework that we teach to current MBA students, regardless of whether they intend to make a major career change or are simply looking to move up within their current or past industry. These activities apply equally to alumni, no matter where they are in the career lifespan. The key to executing this framework is focus and flexibility. Recognize that you might not be able to achieve your ideal situation immediately, but if you think strategically about your long-term goals you will identify the interim steps necessary to reach your intended destination. The silver lining in this recession is that there will be opportunities as the crisis winds down. If you focus on things that you can control and avoid panic, you will be poised to recognize and seize those moments before the competition does.
Mark Horney, Ph.D. is a career and executive coach and a clinical psychologist. A 1997 MBA graduate of Columbia Business School, he currently serves as Director of Career Management for the School’s Executive MBA Programs.