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Three conditions for sustainable careers
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Sustainable careers
Talent & labor organization

Three conditions for sustainable careers

With careers lasting longer and technological evolutions going faster than ever, the key question for all HR policy makers is how to combine employability and workability.
by Ans De Vos, PhD, Jan Laurijssen | March 29, 2021
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Voorwaarden duurzaam HR beleid

Ten years of collaboration within the Chair on Sustainable Careers have generated three important conclusions:

  • Happy, healthy, productive. Whether you are an employer, employee or policy maker, these three indicators need to be in balance, both in the short term and the long term.
  • Ability, motivation, opportunity (AMO). Ownership is only possible when the “why” is clear and when you support employees so that they are willing or able to take control of their careers.
  • Focus on the job. The essence of a career is the everyday work we do and how it generates opportunities for the future.

1. Focus on the triad “happy, healthy & productive”

Careers are the crossroads where organizations and employees meet. Employees are looking for work that matches their needs and capabilities, while employers want to get the most out of their talents. This goes for both “permanent” and flexible employees.

You cannot address these “happy, healthy & productive” conditions independently. They are interlinked. Productivity can only remain high if employees are not burnt out and as long as their jobs remain in line with their ambitions and needs. While as an employee, you can only happily stay in your comfort zone as long as this yields a return for the organization.

These three aspects also interact dynamically. To secure productivity, you need to look beyond the current job. A job that is motivating at a young age may lose its appeal over time. And workable work may mean one thing when you are a young working parent and something different entirely when you grow older.

Over the past decade, we have seen a decline of traditional, static and isolated performance management systems. A narrow focus on (rewarding) past performance makes people stick to their recipe for success well beyond the point where it no longer works–because the job has changed or because it is simply no longer workable or motivating. For those who know only one recipe, it is hard to suddenly change the way they cook. The technological revolution makes this all the more clear: being able to switch quickly is key to keep on working.

We now see a growing focus on feedback culture and performance development. By integrating this into your career policy, you open up the perspective and activate employees to enter into a dialogue. This does mean, though, having the courage to let go of fixed structures and recipes for success. And the only way you can do that, is by replacing them with something altogether clear and appealing.

2011: 50 percent of the 789 HR managers from our first Career-breaking research affirm that "having high-quality talent to achieve objectives" is high on the management agenda. Only 22 percent say that the majority of their employees have competencies that make them employable beyond their current job.

2021: 36 percent of the HR managers from our survey on the impact of COVID-19 on human capital, affirm that the careers of many of their employees is about to change fundamentally. 17 percent doubt that their employees have the right competencies for the organization to be able to continue its activities after the crisis.

2. AMO: creating a context for ownership

“As an employee, you are in the driver’s seat of your career.” This slogan pops up in many an HR vision statement. In our first Career-breaking research in 2012, 74 percent of employers already confirmed that employees are responsible for their own careers. As an employee, you may not be able to claim your job, but you can certainly claim your career.

“Ability, motivation, opportunity”: what is needed to make sure that employees can, and want to, take control of their own careers? That would be a career policy promoting dialogue and support rather than outdated ways for the happy few to move up the career ladder.

Ability: focus on “can”. Use workshops, peer reviews and tools to facilitate your employees' search for answers to these three basic questions: What do I want? What can I do? What does the world need? The frame of reference here should be the organization, at least, and extend beyond the current situation.

Motivation: focus on “want”. Make the “why” clear through reasoning from the crossroads idea. Communicate the organization’s evolution and what is needed for a “happy-healthy-productive” balance in the short and long term. Show genuine interest in how a person perceives his or her own career and what he or she needs to do so.

Opportunity: create opportunities. Set up a coaching program for managers to engage in activating conversations with their employees. This is a win-win situation: managers who proactively and from an enabling role enter into a dialogue with employees, will experience this as very satisfying. Also broaden the narrow focus in talent reviews from potential to employability–this will stimulate managers to really pay attention to the careers of all their employees.

2011, Flexible careers research: 39 percent of employees feel their manager only pays attention to growth potential within the current job.

2020, Future of Work research: 25 percent say their manager is only concerned about their current performance and not their further development.

3. Focus on the job

Work and career are inextricably linked: through the work we do every day, we work on our careers. If we want to make careers sustainable, we need to start from everyday work and the extent to which that everyday work generates future perspectives. After all, that is what sustainable careers are all about: not using up all our energy and competencies in today's job but getting or creating opportunities to keep on working with enthusiasm and passion.

Sustainable careers require a flexible response to changes at work, but also in one's private life or in the wider labor market. These changes are not always predictable. That is why adaptability and flexibility have become key skills, but how can you develop these skills?

Everyday work is crucial here: the learning potential of that work, the incentive to take on new tasks or roles, to dare to address challenges and to take risks. And an accompanying training and development policy to support this. Here again you see a link with feedback and performance development. In this way you create a growth mindset and learning capacity so that employees learn to respond to change and to proactively look for new career opportunities.

Some examples to make this happen:

  • Organize internal or external internships
  • Make room for temporary roles outside the current job
  • Stimulate the development of career and learning competencies
  • Focus career interviews on the learning potential in the current job
  • Empower your employees: What do you need from us so you can, and want to, keep on working here with enthusiasm in the years to come? And what are you going to do yourself to achieve this?

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