One of the greatest gifts I have given as a career counselor is permission—permission to leave a job with nothing else lined up, to approach a job search in an unorthodox way, to take a break from job searching altogether.
Permission to just take a break.
As counselors and job-search experts, we know two mutually exclusive things to be true: that finding employment can require a constant time-sucking grind, and that to do anything well, we need to rest and recharge. How do we reconcile these facts in supporting our students?
Traditional wisdom in our field maintains that job searching is itself a full-time job. We tell students to make a plan and build it into your calendar. We also recommend finding ways to break the large project into smaller, more manageable tasks. This is all good advice and I would continue to incorporate it, but it ignores the burnout that is inevitable under this system, and the disproportionate effects of that burnout on minoritized students. Our advice needs to expand.
Recently, I spent some time reading comments in the Student Health and COVID-19 report from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse that has information from students on what they need as schools and offices reopen, although the results can be quite heavy. Based on this report, it is clear that student mental health is suffering right now.
I am struggling more than ever with emphasizing what employers are looking for, when the question I hear most often from the employer side is, “What did you do during lockdown to keep your skill sets fresh?” and so frequently the answer is, “I simply survived.” That should be enough.
It can feel risky to advise someone to take time away from their career management. So much of a person’s livelihood is tied up in their employment and their employability; we don’t want to be responsible for jeopardizing that. I remember the first time I gave a student permission to walk away: Their work environment was toxic and was taking a significant toll on their mental and physical health. Their classes, family life, and job search were suffering. They wanted to leave their current job, but with nothing else lined up, they were afraid of how long it might take to land the next one and didn’t want a large gap on their resume. We talked through all the details of their situation, the possible perceptions of employers, and their potential options. And I gave them permission to leave. Ultimately, leaning on their support system, the student put in their resignation. Finally able to focus on themself, they poured new energy into the job search and landed a position within two months where they are still thriving.
I have just a handful of instances like this where I explicitly told a student that it was OK to halt the grind, but so far it has a 100% success rate. I gave permission to two students to leave their toxic workplaces and both found new and better positions. Another, a recent grad who had a major block about cover letters, was writing them prolifically after I assigned a week off from the job search entirely. The final student I advised to take a break, an alumnus who expressed that depression was interfering with their career plan, took six months away from it to focus on therapy and then secured a position in a more supportive working environment.
It won’t be practical every time. Permission to rest is a precision tool that we need to use carefully. But we must remember that it’s in our toolbox.
This concept isn’t new. My approach is informed by activists and educators, mostly Black women, who have laid all this groundwork, and in fact have dug much deeper into the nature and purpose of rest than this piece is ready to do. The Nap Ministry is an excellent place to start! I know there are folks out there who already take this approach, but what I hope for is an industry-wide shift that frames liberation, and not assimilation, at the center of our work. For me, rest is a central pillar of such a framework.
So allow this to be a sort of metapermission: The permission to give the permission. Even if it feels risky. You’re not alone in it; as always, you and your student are in it together. And your colleagues are in it, too.
Finally, let this also be your permission to rest. The conversations that we have with students can be raw and vulnerable. This year, more than ever, we may be primed for secondhand trauma or trauma exposure response. We owe each other a ton of grace right now, but we also owe that to ourselves. So please, take a minute. Take a day. Take a week if you can. Ask for what you need. Please rest.