All News and events

Applying for new jobs can be a soul-destroying experience but research suggests that taking time away from application forms to write about things that are important to us can bring significant benefits

As organisations around the world are confronted with new economic challenges and disruption in the markets, more and more of their employees are looking for new jobs. In fact, according to a survey of over 2,000 professionals in the UK, published earlier this year by recruitment company PageGroup, half of respondents were actively looking for a new role or were planning to seek new job opportunities.

Sometimes the decision to move is voluntary but on other occasions, it’s compulsory as redundancies and rationalisations are introduced. At Threshold we provide support for organisations and individuals going through change. At an individual level, this can mean making the often difficult move out of an organisation where they might have worked happily for many years. Remaining positive, focussing on opportunities, and developing your confidence can be difficult in these circumstances. So, what can you do to create and maintain the kind of mindset that will help you to identify new career options and make the most of them?

Writing and self-affirmation

According to newly published research, taking time out from applying for jobs to reflect on values that are important to you as part of a self-affirmation exercise can help boost your self-confidence and create a more positive mindset. A team of psychologists lead by Professor Julian Pfrombeck of the Department of Psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, carried out two studies.

In the first, 334 unemployed job applicants were recruited from an online careers agency.

In the second, the team recruited 556 participants from an employment agency in Zurich, some of whom already had jobs and some of whom were unemployed. All were looking for work. The participants were presented with a list of values which included taking an active interest in their health, playing sports, enjoying nature, being creative and belonging to social groups.  They were then asked to choose two or three that were most important to them. A control group were asked to choose a number of values that they regarded as least important.

The two groups were then asked to write about these values for ten minutes, with the self-affirmation group focussing on why the values were important for them and the control group discussing why they might be important to other people. Six to eight weeks after the experiments, Professor Pfrombeck and his researchers looked at three possible outcomes: first, had the participants got jobs again. Second, how many offers had they received and third (for the Zurich cohort), how long had they been registered at the careers agency.

Self-affirmation can improve your employment prospects

In addition, the subjects who had found jobs at that time were asked about how satisfied they were with their new roles on a scale from one to ten, and whether the position fulfilled their needs. Finally, they were asked about how much their salary had changed, based on a seven point scale.

The psychologists discovered that those who completed the self-affirmation exercise in the first study were more than twice as likely than those in the control group to find new roles within a month. Meanwhile, in the second study, those who engaged in self-affirmation were nearly three times as likely to find employment after a month compared to those in the control group. The participants registered with the job agency in Zurich received 118 per cent more offers after they’d taken part in the affirmation exercise than before.

The benefits of writing about what we value are also reported by social psychologist Dr Timothy Wilson in his book Redirect: The Psychology of Personal Change: “Giving people an opportunity to affirm themselves, even through something as simple as writing about a value that’s important to them, turns out to be an important prophylactic against damage to self-esteem.”

Writing can also help us to handle difficult situations and boost our confidence and resilience, according to research carried out by James Pennebaker, Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Texas and Austin, which we quote in our book Be Bulletproof, Professor Pennebaker’s findings strongly suggest that writing about a difficult or unpleasant experience can help us to put it into context. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and paralysed by a shock or a difficult period of our lives, writing about it can enable us to understand how it fits into our own personal narrative. We can see how it contributes to our development.

Writing about your values can help to improve your self-confidence

There are other psychological experiments exploring the benefits of writing. Students from underprivileged, ethnic minority backgrounds are twice as likely to drop out of higher education than their white peers. This could be due to a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” Here students from some ethnic groups might feel that their race is characterised negatively or unhelpfully and they are anxious about reinforcing or acting out these stereotypes.

In one study students from ethnic minority backgrounds were simply asked to spend 15 minutes writing about something that was important to them. They were also asked to repeat this exercise for just a matter of moments whenever they felt anxious or stressed. Compared with the control group these students enjoyed greater feelings of self-esteem and resilience.

Coming back to those situations in which we might find ourselves struggling during turbulent or difficult times at work and possibly even facing the prospect of redundancy, writing about something else in our lives that is important and significant, that gives us pleasure and a self of fulfilment can help improve our mood and outlook. There are other techniques that we mention in Be Bulletproof and recommend to our clients that might help. One is to do a stocktake of your successes – writing down the things that you’ve achieved and that you’re proud of in your life.

Struggling with a job application? Put it aside for a few moments and get writing

Think of something in your homelife such as family activity. It might be playing or watching sport – what do you love about it? What was your proudest moment or most exciting experience? Perhaps it’s your love of music, theatre or art. You could write about a particular piece of music, a great performance or a book, play or film that you always come back to. The wonderful thing about this kind of writing is that there are no rules. This isn’t a report that your line manager will pore over and feedback on – just let your enthusiasm and your imagination run wild.

The idea isn’t to share what you’ve written with anyone else unless you particularly want to. Some people we’ve spoken to who have put this into practice have told us that using a pen and paper rather than typing helps them to become more fully absorbed in the writing process. Either way, if you’re struggling, put away that job application for a short while and start writing instead about something that really inspires you.