Integrating Relational Perspectives in Career Counseling Practice.

Author:Kenny, Maureen E.

Sweeping changes in the world of work are transforming the very fabric of career counseling practice as clients cope increasingly with work uncertainty, including unemployment, underemployment, and precarious work. The authors describe how relational perspectives (Blustein, 2011; Flum 2015; Richardson, 2012; Schultheiss, 2003) can be infused in career counseling, with a focus on the concerns of an increasingly stressed and anxious client population. To provide a framework for the application of relational perspectives, the authors integrate and present existing relational theories and frameworks in 4 tenets that have particular relevance for career counseling practice. An in-depth case analysis is provided to illustrate how relational perspectives can be integrated in working with clients experiencing uncertain work and associated relational challenges.

Keywords: relational perspectives, career counseling, changes in work


Changes sweeping the world of work are nothing short of revolutionary. Unemployment, underemployment, downsizing, outsourcing, and the rapid infusion of brilliant technologies are creating trends that are hard to discern precisely (Blustein, 2013; Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2014; Savickas, 2011). What is clear, however, is that stable and linear career pathways are increasingly less available for a growing proportion of working people (Blustein, 2006; Savickas, 2013). Given the shrinking job market for many, and the daunting future projections that have been detailed in the literature (e.g., Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2014; Frey & Osborne, 2013; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2015), new perspectives that are applicable for all potential workers and tailored for the relativistic 21st century are needed to guide career practice. In response to this context of rapid change, a number of theoretical innovations for career counseling have been proposed, including life-design theory (Savickas et al., 2009), psychology of working theory (Blustein, 2006, 2013; Duffy, Blustein, Diemer, & Autin, 2016), and relational perspectives on working and careers (Blustein, 2011; Flum, 2015; Richardson, 2012; Schultheiss, 2003).

In this article, we propose that relational perspectives writ large have considerable untapped potential to help career counselors address the complex needs of people who strive to gain meaningful employment in a precarious world. Relational perspectives do not represent a single theoretical approach but can be integrated with social cognitive theory (Lent, 2013); social constructionist and life-design approaches (Savickas et al., 2009); psychology of working theory (Duffy et al., 2016); and psychotherapeutic approaches, such as narrative therapy (White & Epston, 1990) and relational cultural theory (Jordan, 2000; Schultheiss, 2007). We maintain that transformations in the world of work associated with high levels of uncertainty, anxiety, and unstable work are exerting profound effects on the relational lives of individuals and those close to them. We propose that as a consequence of these radical shifts, relational perspectives are of increased relevance and critical importance to career intervention. One unique contribution of this article is that we provide an integration of the major relational theories and perspectives (i.e., Blustein, 2011; Flum, 2015; Richardson, 2012; Schultheiss, 2003) tailored specifically to guide the design and delivery of counseling interventions. A second unique contribution is that we apply relational perspectives directly to the current needs of career counselors, thereby providing them with a roadmap for implementing this growing body of work with clients. We use an in-depth case analysis as a lens to illustrate how relational perspectives can be manifested in counseling clients who are facing growing levels of precarious work and, consequently, precarious lives. We begin with an overview of how changes in the world of work are disrupting people's lives, then we present the tenets, implications, and application of relational perspectives.

Changes in Work and Workers

Although the Great Recession of 2007 to 2010 is officially over, globalization, technology, and turbulence in the world's economic markets contribute to continued unemployment and underemployment across many sectors of the United States and many other countries around the world (International Labour Organization, 2016; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2015; Stiglitz, 2015). The manufacturing jobs that offered a living wage and benefits for individuals without advanced education have diminished precipitously as work has either been transported overseas or been replaced by computer technology and robotics. The new jobs that are created often involve a drop in earnings and stability and an increase in short-term contract work, causing more uncertainty for many people (Katz & Krueger, 2016).

Changes associated with work have a profound effect on many facets of people's lives, encompassing relationships within the workplace and beyond. These changes touch the lives of all workers, but especially the lives of those with less education, less access to financial resources, and consequently less choice (Blustein, 2006; Duffy et al., 2016). Blustein, Kozan, and Connors-Kellgren (2013) documented the complex array of relational and identity challenges that accompany loss of work. Temporary work and precarious work have equally profound relational effects, as employees have less sustained personal contact and are unable to establish the type of long-term relationships in the workplace that offer social rewards and satisfy relational needs (Reich & Hershcovis, 2011).

Unemployment and temporary work also bring a loss of income and other benefits that are considered integral to well-being (Standing, 2014). A loss of health insurance and other social protections affects not only workers but also their families. The instability of employment can also result in the need to relocate, sometimes involuntarily, for work opportunities, which is disruptive for one's social relationships and family. Given the large number of families in which both adult partners seek market work in efforts to meet the rapidly increasing cost of living (Duffy et al., 2016; Schultheiss, 2003), relocation can disrupt existing patterns of family responsibilities for both paid work outside of the home and work that involves personal care of family members, including children, older adults, and others. Ironically, the dislocations and transitions that characterize contemporary society often heighten feelings of psychological insecurity and the need for social and emotional intimacy and belonging (Flum, 2015). While technology affords the opportunity for greater connectivity and interdependence across distance and may enable some individuals to work remotely and engage simultaneously in both market work and care work, many people experience a profound loss of intimacy and personal connection by not engaging directly with others in the workplace. As detailed in Richardson's (2012) perspective on counseling for work and relationships, market work entails the traditional efforts by people in the paid labor force, whereas care work entails the caregiving that people do for their family members and other community members and is often gendered in many cultures and generally not economically sanctioned. When considering the rapid nature of changes in work coupled with the loss of relational connections, the comment that the 21st century is marked by "interconnectivity alongside mounting isolation" (Hartung, 2013, p. 35) is particularly evocative.

Technology, globalization, and immigration are also creating work and community settings that are increasingly diverse, yet the allocation of power and resources often reflects the dominant culture in ways that can work against equity and inclusion. Some workplaces and communities may be gaining in inclusivity, whereas others regrettably are characterized by incivility, cultural conflict, anxiety, marginalization, and oppression (Fouad, Singh, Cappaert, Chang, & Wan, 2016; Reich & Herschcovis, 2011). Although workplace diversity with regard to age, skills, ethnicity, race, and ability status can lead to higher levels of creativity and the generation of new ideas, diversity can also present challenges in the development of group identity and team building that rewards and supports all workers (Reich & Herschcovis, 2011).

As this brief description of changes in the workplace makes evident, counselors need to be prepared to address the dynamic and reciprocal interplay of work and relationships across multiple life contexts. We next provide an overview, a description, and an integration of core tenets of a relational perspective that are particularly relevant for clients facing work uncertainty and loss.

Relational Perspectives on Work and Career

Freud (1930) recognized love and work as central to human functioning and well-being. These two spheres of life often have been viewed as distinct and separate, with work being associated traditionally with the masculine domains of independence and achievement, and with love and other types of nonwork and noncompetitive relationships being associated with the feminine domain (Richardson, 2012). Over the past 25 years, a relational revolution has occurred in many spheres of intellectual and cultural life (e.g., Bowlby, 1988; Gilligan, 2014) that have challenged the bifurcated conceptualization of the work and nonwork spheres of life that had dominated psychological theory, counseling practice, and the public consciousness (Flum, 2015; Richardson, 2012). Advances in feminism and multiculturalism, along with developments in relationally oriented psychoanalytic (e.g., Bowlby, 1988; Kohut, 1981) and developmental (e.g., Gilligan, 2014) theories, have propelled this shift.

Several career development...

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