Research Updates

Work in the post-pandemic era: how to survive career shocks

The questions

“Great resignation”. “Great rethink”. “Quiet quitting”.  In recent years, these words have dominated the pages of management journals such as Harvard Business Review, as well as newspapers and social media 


The first term refers to the large number of resignations that characterized the post-pandemic phase. Although the scale of the phenomenon was very different in, for example, the US and Europe – let’s remember that in Italy there were more resignations in 2008 than in 2021 –, there was certainly an increasing number of workers who had the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of their work and career and, in some cases, to change direction. Hence the “great rethinking” about the purpose of one’s work. This reflection on the meaning of work, on the other hand, has led others to stay and minimize their efforts: that is, to “quietly quit”, reducing their engagement and identification with the organization, an already common phenomenon among disaffected workers of all ages in countries where dismissal for poor performance is particularly complex. 


There are several mechanisms that can be used to explain how and why work is perceived as meaningful. Most of them focus on the psychological processes underlying the experience of meaningfulness, such as when individuals believe that they are acting in accordance with their interests and values, or that they have the power to make a difference; only a minority of mechanisms suggest the existence of a social process of sensemaking, calling for further studies to explore the extent to which the interactions of factors operating at different levels support and/or challenge the process by which individuals experience their work as meaningful. 


The work we briefly present here is part of an international research project, 5C (, which brings together more than 30 countries and more than 60 researchers worldwide and has published articles on career issues with a comparative approach in many international journals (see the page for a list of publications). The research refers to the latest data collection carried out by the international research group 5C (Career Barometer Survey) in 2020 and 2021 and concerns the Italian sample only. The sample included 285 managers and professionals, of which 42.6% were women, 68.1% were professionals and 31.9% were managers. 97.2% had a university degree or higher. The average respondent was 41.1 years old and had a total of 16.1 years of work experience. 


In this study, we examined the effect of negative work-related shocks experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic on positive career meaning. Work-related shocks include situations in which an employee had to drastically change the way they work, the content of their work, or the location of their work (e.g., from full-time office work to full-time remote work). We included nine possible shocks that employees perceived as having negative valence. Career meaning included items such as: "I have found a meaningful career," "I understand how my work contributes to the meaning of my life," "I have a good sense of what makes my work meaningful.” In particular, we tested the moderating effect of relevant organizational (supervisor and coworker support) and individual resources (career optimism) on this relationship, further exploring the interplay of career optimism and individual perceptions of organizational effectiveness in dealing with Covid-19. 


Our findings do not support the hypothesis that individuals who experience a greater number of negative shocks will suffer a reduction in their positive career meaning. They support a more nuanced analysis of career shocks that is not limited to capturing their valence (either positive or negative) and intensity, but also the effect of their combination. Indeed, although research is likely to find that Covid-19 work-related shocks have mostly negative consequences (in the short-term), these shocks may trigger a reconsideration of career goals and values, resulting in improved positive career meaning. For example, when challenged by difficult working conditions, some individuals may change job roles and move to more satisfying ones. In addition, employees who experience a novel and critical negative workplace event are more likely to engage in improvisational behaviours such as seizing opportunities and thinking outside the box.  


Taking into examination the role of individual and organizational resources in mitigating the negative effects of work-related shocks, the results suggest that receiving instrumental support (e.g., information, expertise, professional advice) from either coworkers or managers may be insufficient for experiencing positive career meaning in contexts such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Since such forms of support are designed to support workers in “normal” organizational conditions, they may not cover multiple adversities that affect one’s work. In addition, because managers and coworkers are also affected by adversities and uncertainties, they are not necessarily equipped to provide career support. Conversely, emotional and social resources such as friendship, affection, affirmation – either received from coworkers or as a personal attribute – serve as important boundary conditions that mitigate the negative impact of work-related shocks on positive career meaning. 

Looking Ahead

In such disruptive contexts as the Covid-19 pandemic, individual positive career meaning is nurtured by an organizational environment that promotes a sense of belonging and a stronger sense of social identity, thereby reducing the likelihood of demotivation and disengagement. Similarly, our results suggest that organizational actions aimed at communicating how the company is facing the crisis and reshaping its strategy and values accordingly provide a “sensemaking framework” to support individuals (especially those with low individual resources) in the process of creating new meaning in their work after the shocks. Indeed, individual resources such as career optimism mitigated the negative impact of the shock on positive career meaning. 


In summary, our results show that positive career meaning can withstand shocks and that individual characteristics and psychological support from coworkers are stronger than organizational resources in mitigating the negative effects of shocks on meaningful work. However, further research is needed in order to examine the combined effect of shocks of both positive and negative valence on career meaning over time.