Career Adaptability of Trauma Survivors: The Moderating Role of Posttraumatic Growth.

Author:Prescod, Diandra J.

Impaired functioning in occupational domains is a diagnostic characteristic ot posttraumatic stress disorder, and yet the interactions between trauma and career remain understudied. This study examined the relationships between trauma symptoms, posttraumatic growth, and career adaptability in college students who identified as trauma survivors (N = 215). Results indicated that (a) trauma symptoms and posttraumatic growth were both significantly predictive of career adaptability and (b) posttraumatic growth moderated the relationship between trauma and career adaptability. The impact of demographic factors and implications for career counselors and counselor educators are also discussed.

Keywords: trauma, career adaptability, career counseling, posttraumatic stress, posttraumatic growth


Trauma survivors have experienced the likelihood of loss of life or threat of harm to oneself or others (Matsakis, 1998). Traumatic experiences take many forms, including sexual and physical abuse, violence, accidents, natural disasters, and victimization through crime (Weinberg & Gil, 2016). Surviving a traumatic experience often causes individuals to question their core beliefs, which in turn threatens feelings of safety in the world (Bayer, Lev-Wiesel, & Amir, 2007). Many trauma survivors find themselves experiencing emotionally painful symptoms because of their trauma experience. Typical symptomatology following a traumatic experience includes feelings of detachment, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, depression, or increased anxiety (Cody & Beck, 2014; Graham et al., 2016). Although understudied, trauma experiences have also been shown to be related to aspects of career development, leading the present research to explore relationships between trauma symptoms and career adaptability.

Trauma and Career Development

Impaired functioning across multiple domains (e.g., interpersonal, developmental, physical) is a necessary diagnostic criterion associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including impaired functioning in occupational domains (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In addition, those who have experienced trauma or are living with PTSD may have overall issues with career maturity or issues in the workplace, such as difficulty communicating with coworkers and completing job responsibilities promptly (Coursol, Lewis, & Garrity, 2001; Wald, 2009). Female survivors of interpersonal violence have experienced challenges returning to work following their trauma, including physical health concerns, social isolation, feeling disconnected, and a loss of control (Ballou, Balogun, Gittens, Matsumoto, & Sanchez, 2015). Researchers examining women in the military who have experienced sexual assault on the job suggest that such trauma affects overall job satisfaction and level of productivity (Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007). Likewise, when comparing women who had not experienced sexual trauma with those who had, women who experienced sexual trauma in their careers reported more emotional health concerns, more physical health concerns, and greater difficulty with the job due to these health issues (Millegan et al., 2015). From these emotional reactions to trauma, many participants eventually were demoted, causing other concerns over job security (Millegan et al., 2015). Although these findings speak to the relationship between trauma experience and career elements (e.g., occupational satisfaction, career readiness), they fail to acknowledge the mental and emotional impact of trauma and its continued influence on career.

Career Adaptability

Many career-related reactions to trauma (e.g., loss of control, job concerns) may be measured in relation to the concept of career adaptability, which refers to an individual's competency in coping with developmental work tasks, transitions, and traumas (Oncel, 2014; Savickas, 1997). Career adaptability resources are those that individuals use when attempting to cope with work stressors (Oncel, 2014). Savickas (1997) outlined four dimensions of career adaptability: concern, control, curiosity, and confidence. Concern refers to the importance of planning for the future. Control refers to the belief that one has control over the future regarding one's career. Curiosity and confidence are described, respectively, as resources to explore one's career options and the ability to deal with obstacles to pursuing desired career goals. One may find accessing and using skills and resources associated with each one of these four career adaptability dimensions more difficult because of past trauma (Bloom, 1997).

Savickas and Porfeli (2012) described individuals' adaptation to their environments, noting that successful career outcomes are an expression of the ability to engage in adaptive behaviors that allow their personalities to fit into their work roles (Porfeli & Savickas, 2012). The evaluation of successful adaptation is determined by examining an individual's growth, contentment, ability to change, and perception of successful outcomes (Hamtiaux, Houssemand, & Vrignaud, 2013). Regulating adaptiveness using internal resources requires willingness, ability, and a context to change (Creed, Fallon, & Hood, 2009; Savickas & Porfeli, 2012). Researchers define the extent of career adaptability as a reflection of an individual's self-concept, perceptions about life, anxious response, and mood, which are also affected by employment stability (Maggiori, Johnston, Krings, Massoudi, & Rossier, 2013). Although negative emotional symptomatology is often present following a traumatic event and can affect career elements, research has also suggested that positive psychological changes and personal growth can take place following such an event (Eve & Kangas, 2015; Wusik, Smith, Jones, & Hughes, 2015).

Posttraumatic Growth

Posttraumatic growth (PTG) is positive psychological change that follows an experience of trauma or challenging life event (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). Unlike similar terms, such as resiliency, individuals who experience PTG move to a place of improved functioning, even greater than that of their previous baseline of functioning (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Perceived growth after trauma comprises three categories: (a) changes in self-perception, (b) changes in interpersonal relationships, and (c) changes in philosophy of life (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). Changes in self-perception include trauma survivors feeling like they have become better people, including feeling stronger or more confident (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). Changes in interpersonal relationships include trauma survivors experiencing stronger relationships with friends, family, and peers because of their trauma experience. Finally, changes in philosophy of life may present as trauma survivors feeling as if they are living life to the fullest since their trauma, as well as survivors experiencing strengthened religious or spiritual beliefs and increased sense of meaning (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). PTG has been found among college students (Yeung, Lu, Wong, & Huynh, 2016), chronically ill individuals (Zeligman, Barden, & Hagedorn, 2016), war veterans (Marotta-Walters, Choi, & Shaine, 2015), and sexual assault survivors (Ullman, 2014). Although PTG is studied with various populations, it has not been studied in relation to issues of career development.

Purpose of the Study

Trauma has the potential to affect carccr experiences, and documented relationships exist between trauma symptoms and career development (Strauser, Lustig, Cogdal, & Uruk, 2006). Therefore, the purpose of the present study was to address a gap in the research exploring trauma in the context of career development and, in particular, career adaptability. Considering the research on trauma and PTG, and a wellness perspective consistent with counselor identity, we hypothesized that career adaptability might also be related to growth after trauma (i.e., PTG). We therefore aimed to explore the relationships between the three constructs of trauma experience, career adaptability, and PTG.

The following was the overarching research question guiding our study: To what extent are trauma experience and PTG correlates and predictors of career adaptability? We hypothesized that trauma symptomatology and PTG would be significant correlates and predictors of career adaptability. Specifically, wc hypothesized that trauma symptomatology would have a negative relationship with career adaptability, whereas PTG and career adaptability would have a positive relationship. Furthermore, recognizing that PTG influences an individual's recovery following trauma, we hypothesized that the presence of such growth may buffer (i.e., moderate) experiences of trauma symptomatology in its relationship with career adaptability. A moderation analysis was chosen under the hypothesis that PTG influences rather than explains the relationships between variables (Frazier, Tix, & Barron, 2004).



Participants were 215 undergraduate students at an urban university in the Southeast. The participants identified primarily as female (n = 166, 77%), and 47 (22%) identified as male. The remaining two participants (1%) identified as something other than the options that were provided (i.e., female, male, transgender), and no participants identified as transgender. The sample had a mean age of 35 years (SD = 7.89, range = 18-59). Participants were selected from a larger data set (N = 481) and were only considered in the present data set if they endorsed surviving one or more trauma experiences. Most participants identified as Black/African American (n =...

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