Help exists for professionals who find their careers on hold just as they are hitting the stride of mid-life. But ambitious people, accustomed to success, often are unwilling to seek assistance, psychologists and social workers say.
Meyer Lightman, director of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, said he recently was scheduled to counsel a support group for mid-career professionals but cancelled it because no one signed up.
"They don't want to admit they're in their middle years," Lightman explained.
"It is not a pleasant thing to realize," added Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, a UC San Francisco medical school professor who heads a research program on corporate health care.
"From the day we're born, especially for males, it's, 'Strive! Be upwardly mobile!' " he said. "Then in the critical part of your career--the part you've trained all your life for--you suddenly realize that the dream is over or may be ratcheted back."
Part of the problem for baby boomers is their difficulty recognizing that career frustration has outstripped their ability to cope.
How can the job-stalled jump-start their engines? Experts prescribe a regimen of self-awareness exercises, candid conversations with friends and loved ones and--where it seems in order--a visit to a career counselor or a mental health professional.
D. Steven Burns, associate executive director of the Mental Health Assn. in Los Angeles, recommends a self-assessment at the first signs of career dissatisfaction.
"The first thing people need to do is check out their expectations," he said.
"Sitting quietly in a room by yourself, consider where you expect to get in this business or this industry and check out how realistic that is."
Burns and other experts say the self-evaluation should include these questions:
- Is my tolerance of frustration diminished?
- Am I belligerent at work or home?
- Do I hate to go to work?
- Am I feeling stressed? Forgetful?
- Has there been a change in my life's rhythms, either a depressed slowing down or a fretful acceleration?
- Do I feel helpless to solve my problems?
- Am I experiencing physical aches and pains or catching a lot of colds?
- Has my drinking or use of prescription drugs become excessive?
- How well-rounded is my life?
"If one finds one's life is completely limited to a focus on work, you know for sure you've got a problem," said Linda M. Poverny, director of the Staff-Faculty Counseling and Consultation Center at USC.
Honesty about such issues can be illusive, so mental health specialists say it is crucial to ask friends and family to help with the personal inventory.
"One of the things that tends to allow people to handle stress a lot better is social support," said Roberta D. Green, a clinical social worker with offices in Los Angeles and Studio City.
Perhaps the toughest decision is figuring out what course of action is dictated by the results of a self-appraisal. Career counseling? Psychotherapy? A support group?
Among the best places to start looking for guidance--either a referral or just an air-clearing conversation--are the employee assistance programs many larger firms offer as a job benefit.
"They're very good for this kind of thing," Poverny said. "Problem solving and bouncing ideas around with somebody is the best way to get a handle on what's going on."
If the problems seem to go no further than your job--not having one or hating the one you have--career counseling may be the next step. Nonprofit groups like Forty Plus and the Jewish Vocational Service are one resource; for-profit counselors are listed in the phone directory.
Deeper wounds often lurk beneath job woes, however. "People often come to us for a career-related issue when it's really an emotional issue, but it's harder for them to say it," said Vivian Seigel, regional director of the Jewish Vocational Service in Los Angeles. "There's less of a stigma if they say it's job-related."
Pelletier suspects that most workers derailed at mid-career, in fact, could be helped by talking with a mental health professional--whether a social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist.
Candidates for psychological counseling "have a vague sense of uneasiness or depression (and) they're not sure where it's coming from," added Burns. "They need a trained counselor to help them figure out what's going on."
Most referrals to such counselors come from friends, experts say. The Mental Health Assn. and local psychiatric and psychological associations also can offer reputable referrals.