Damian Birkel has seen what can happen to people whose lives have been upended by a layoff. Since starting a nonprofit support group called Professionals in Transition in 1982, Birkel says he has dissuaded more than a few from terrible decisions, most memorably one executive some years ago: “I had to persuade him to take a gun out of his mouth and lay it on the table.”
At the moment, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the economy with no end in sight, Birkel’s organization is overrun with new members looking for guidance about their next career move. Many just need some smart advice on expanding their networks and strategizing for the future. A few, however, “have become completely unhinged” by a job loss, Birkel says. “They need help that’s way beyond what a career coach or a support group can handle. That’s when it’s time for psychotherapy.”
These days, both coaches and therapists report they’re being deluged with inquiries from current and former clients. “Everyone is scared,” notes Kathi Elster, a partner in New York City-based K Squared Enterprises, which offers both coaching and therapy. “Many people do not do well with uncertainty.”
If you’re one of those people, and think you’d benefit from some professional advice, which kind should you choose? The answer lies in an essential difference between what coaches and therapists do. A career coach is trained (and often certified, by an organization like the International Association of Coaching, the Society for Human Resource Management, or GetFive) to brainstorm with you about your overall work goals and how to reach them. The discussion is entirely about your professional life.
By contrast, therapists (who are required to be licensed in all 50 U.S. states) focus on helping you address emotional baggage from your past, and any resulting psychological disorders, that may be getting in the way of achieving what you want in your career.
Since emotional problems can have a sneaky way of lurking just below the surface of our conscious minds, it’s not always easy to see what the real problem is. Often, career coaches come across a psychological issue a client is struggling with, and refer that person to a therapist for a closer look at it.
One example, from executive coach and author Lois Frankel, PhD: The head of a thriving national nonprofit was an accomplished public speaker—except that, when it came to talking to her own organization’s all-male board of directors, she became mysteriously tongue-tied. Says Frankel, “It turned out she had an older brother who teased her mercilessly as a child,” leaving her with a deep-rooted anxiety. Frankel coached her on effective communication techniques, while also referring her to therapy “to deal with that underlying cause.”
If all you need is some savvy advice on tactics for moving your career to the next level, a seasoned coach is your best bet. But it’s wise to recognize, too, that you may need to dig deeper. Signs of career-damaging emotional trouble can be subtle, like a pattern of overreacting to relatively minor work setbacks, or an inability to accept less-than-great feedback (even when your rational mind knows that it’s accurate).
Particularly common is clinical depression, which even in good times affects about 6% of the U.S. population—and, at times like these, starts to skyrocket. (Curious about whether you suffer from depression? The diagnostic quiz that doctors use is online here.)
A common symptom of depression, says longtime clinical psychologist Sherry Benton, PhD, is “the feeling of being paralyzed or ‘stuck,’ unable to move forward with what you know you need to do.” If that describes you now, Benton says, get treatment as soon as possible, to head off “episodes that can get more frequent, and more severe, for the rest of your life and career.”
Luckily, both coaching and therapy are available online, and both kinds of practitioners recommend choosing a professional by contacting two or three and asking whether they have experience in dealing with situations similar to yours. Ask for referrals to past clients. To find an online therapist, Rachel McCrickard, a veteran therapist who is now CEO of therapist-training site Motivo, recommends 7 Cups, BetterHelp, TalkSpace, or Open Path Collective.
As McCrickard sees it, we could all use some professional help. She points out that the pandemic has produced so much stress and upheaval that millions of people around the world are showing symptoms that meet the standard for “adjustment disorder.” The malaise is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a combination of depression and anxiety that causes “nervousness, worry, difficulty concentrating or remembering things, and feeling overwhelmed.”
In a normally functioning world, people sought therapy for this “only if the symptoms were especially chronic or severe,” McCrickard says. And in this pandemic? “Almost everyone is struggling with adjustment disorder now.”
More must-read careers coverage from Fortune:
—How Fortune 500 companies are stepping up during the pandemic
—3 ways to put your best foot forward on a video job interview
—Everything you need to know about furloughs—and what they mean for workers
—The coronavirus could change how freelancers work in the long term
—Accenture and Verizon work to help furloughed or laid-off workers find new jobs
—WATCH: 401(k) withdrawal penalties waived for anyone hurt by COVID-19
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