Anxiety Is a 'Double-Edged Sword' for Job Seeking

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Anxiety can help channel efforts—but it can also undermine applicants.

New research links the anxiety of job seeking during a pandemic to both positive and negative results.

It makes sense that anyone entering the job market for the first time would be feeling added anxiety because of the havoc being wreaked on labor markets by the global pandemic, says study leader Allison Gabriel, professor of management at the University of Arizona Eller College of Management.

“We wanted to understand if there are certain ways that anxiety might actually be helpful for them,” says Gabriel. “Are there certain ways they are actually able to channel that anxiety to create a more productive job search process?”

To help answer that question, the researchers collected survey data from 162 students in their final semester at the University of Arizona each week for up to six weeks of a search for full-time work or internships in fall 2020. They specifically examined two types of thought processes related to anxiety:

  • problem-solving pondering, or focusing thoughts on how to improve a job search;
  • affect-focused rumination, or recurring negative thoughts about a job search.

“Anxiety is a double-edged sword,” Gabriel says. “It can help you focus in on your goals and channel your effort effectively, but it can also undermine you.”

Job Seeking Anxiety

Researchers found that job seekers who responded to their anxiety with problem-solving pondering were more likely to exert effort in productive ways, such as focusing on reevaluating and improving their job and internship search-related behaviors. The study found those participants were also more likely to continue the search for what they classified as a dream job, or one that meets their image of an ideal post-graduation position. That, in turn, was related to obtaining more interviews and job offers over the course of the study.

Affect-focused rumination, on the other hand, negatively affected dream job search efforts. Those who reported feeling afraid, upset, scared, distressed, or nervous one week were less likely to continue their search for a dream job the following week.

“One thing that we were concerned about for our job seekers was: Do we have students who are abandoning their goals and aspirations because of COVID-19 and because the labor markets are constrained?” Gabriel says. “We found that students, as long as they were operating through this really productive pathway, were still exerting effort toward their dream jobs.”

Conspiracy Theories

People’s opinions about the severity of the pandemic can also impact how they respond to job search anxiety, the research finds.

Study participants were asked whether they believe that “the official version of events given by the authorities very often hides the truth.” Gabriel and her colleagues found that those who reported higher levels of what researchers categorized as conspiracy theory beliefs were more likely to engage in affect-focused rumination in response to feeling anxious about their job search. Gabriel says this could be because job seekers who hold these beliefs may feel less in control over their job search and have lowered expectations for achieving their goals.

It’s important to note, says Gabriel, that job seekers can easily experience both types of reactions to anxiety. When someone is experiencing anxiety, it’s important to pay attention to those thoughts and how they are being channeled, she says.

“One clear takeaway is to encourage job seekers to really focus on why they are feeling anxious about their job search and what they can do to channel that positively,” Gabriel says. “So, rather than shutting down and falling into the panic and worry, you can take that cue and say, ‘OK, something is off. I’m not making the progress I want. What can I do to reevaluate and re-craft my search in a positive way?'”

A paper on the findings appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

This article was originally published in Futurity. It has been republished under the Attribution 4.0 International license.

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