Climb out of the COVID-19 career rut

By Colleen O. Hall, CPC, CPMA, CIRCC
| 4/6/2021
Climb out of the COVID-19 career rut

The past year has been difficult, leaving many of us feeling unmotivated, bored, unfulfilled, overworked, and underappreciated. Those of us lucky enough to have stayed employed have been asked to blur the lines between home and work. We have been asked to pivot without notice and figure out ways to deliver on commitments without the normal tools in our kit. We have been asked to pause work that is just about complete in order to allow others to pivot appropriately. We have been asked to see our colleagues only through video calls. And we have been asked to brace for the worst. The past year of our lives has been filled with anxiety and a series of unexpected challenges.

A type of high comes with conquering those challenges, and many of us have made it through the pandemic by relishing those wins – the accomplishments, the realization that we were able to make such significant changes to the way we do our jobs and still achieve success, and the knowledge that with focus and effort, we can do those jobs just as well as we did before. We figured it out. And we high-fived (virtually, of course) along the way.

Now we appear to be entering a new phase: “COVID-19 career rut.” A path forward is in view – where things are starting to return to a new normal. Business is moving closer to the way it was done in early 2020. And while this return was expected to create joy and happiness and motivation, it sometimes is actually having the opposite effect. We are starting to feel the letdown from the high, and it has us asking ourselves what’s next.

To fight the feelings of dejectedness, it can be helpful to identify and write down a list of things that cause good and not-so-good feelings and then separate list items into things that are related to COVID-19 and things that are ongoing. Even the COVID-19 list might include some good things. This exercise should enable you to do three things:

  • Identify those items on the list that are temporary and likely will be eliminated from the list in due time.
  • Identify those good things that can be kept on the list, even if they are due to COVID-19 (for some, an example might be less travel).
  • Focus closely on the list items that bring joy.

Once you identify the causes of both negative and joyful feelings, they can be discussed and addressed. Perhaps the list will reveal a desire for in-person interaction with clients and co-workers. If so, it can help to schedule some meetings, go into the office, have lunch with colleagues, or have dinner with team members. Having these interactions – or even getting them on the calendar for when everyone is able to meet – could help you feel refreshed, recharged, and motivated.

While this exercise is a great first step, some people might make a leap to drastic change. Much of the advice about getting out of a COVID-19 career rut comes from articles and guidance on how to get out of the rut by seeking a new job at a new company, doing a new thing, or seeking a new passion. As the job market opens back up, people might be looking to make a move. But there are other ways to get out of the rut without making career decisions that might be catastrophic for those who think they can only look outward instead of inward to get back on track. People could make life-changing decisions with all of the fog of COVID-19 clouding their decision-making about their career. It is like going grocery shopping when you are hungry – if you do, you are left with the consequences of making bad, unhealthy decisions.

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Instead of looking for another job as a default, it’s important to talk openly about your specific needs and challenges. Here are six things to do to help climb out of the rut:

1. Identify and celebrate your accomplishments. Designate some time to reflect on this past year. Think about all of the great things that you have accomplished. Every one of us has made a difference this past year. Yes, the year was tough and success has been measured differently, but successes did exist. Wins happened. A lot of good took place this past year. Accomplishments shouldn’t be marginalized, as they are amazing things – especially given the circumstances.

2. Reconnect with people. Not many people realize how much energy and confidence one gains from interacting in person with a team or colleagues or friends or family. The little comments in a group setting when someone says, “Oh, that’s a great idea” or “I am so glad you brought that up” or someone tells you they are proud of you are all incredible confidence boosters. And although the accolades might have been happening all year, there is something different about hearing them from a person sitting right across the table rather than in an email. Keep in mind, it goes both ways. Offering praise to others helps your confidence just as much as it helps the recipient. Really focus on the good things done, and share them widely. In time, when it’s safe and you feel comfortable, go back into the office with your team. Set aside even one day per week to go to the office or go to lunch with people. Grab a drink at happy hour. Human connection is vital to continue to grow, learn, and thrive.

3. Focus on your career goals. Think about your short- and long-term career goals. If you have found yourself asking what’s next, it is important to start to make plans. Do you want to work with a different client? Do you want to be promoted within a specific time frame? What do you want to achieve? Think about this and work through a plan to focus on those career goals. That should help bring your career into focus and have you working toward an outcome.

4. Broaden your exposure and skill set. This is an important one. Never lose your thirst for learning. Ask to be involved with a new project or a new client or even to be given exposure outside of your specific industry or service offering. Don’t be afraid to speak up and expand your knowledge and skill set.

5. Connect with your mentors and coaches. It’s important to talk to someone – to have an outlet to speak your mind and receive unbiased opinions. Perspective in times of change is helpful. A mentor can provide that. Many of us have a designated career coach to whom we report directly. But I expect that many of us have mentors as well. And if you don’t have someone you consider a mentor, you should find someone. Many organizations have great programs to connect individuals with mentors internally. But a mentor doesn’t have to be at your place of employment. For example, a family member might provide guidance and advice throughout your career. Although it can be easier said than done, please do not be afraid to reach out to others and ask them to mentor you. It’s unlikely anyone will say no.

6. Reconnect with the passions in your career. Take a minute to think about your list of joys. Those joys are your passions. Many of us need to reconnect with those passions, as they have been taken away from us over the past year. Many of us thrive on personal interactions, which we haven’t had. Many of us thrive in team settings, which we haven’t had. Many of us loved the hustle and bustle of traveling to client sites, which we haven’t been able to do. We need to reconnect with the passions that drive us in our core. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in. The work that you do matters. It makes someone’s life better. Don’t ever forget that.

The main takeaway? Communicate. Now, more than ever, we need to connect with people, with our passions, with a plan. Talk about what you are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. You are not alone. Small changes can reenergize you and remind you that you are valued and that what you do matters and makes a difference. We are moving closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. We are coming out of this COVID-19 career rut.

Colleen O. Hall
Colleen O. Hall
Managing Principal, Healthcare