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How to deal with stress when you’re looking for a job: ten essential tips

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator
Searching for the right graduate job on top of uni commitments can be exhausting. Here are 10 tips on how to manage stress during your graduate job search.

The hard work of finding work

At Prosple Australia, we’re dedicated to helping you transition from university to a fulfilling career by providing as much relevant information and support as possible. However, we’re also aware that, for many young Australians, even those with competitive degrees from top universities, the shift to full-time work isn’t easy or clear-cut. In fact, it can be a real pain in the neck.

A 2018 study by The Foundation for Young Australians found that, while some 60 per cent of Australians have a post-school qualification by the age of 25, approximately half are unable to secure full-time employment. Worse, the average time taken to transition from tertiary education to full-time work has grown to 4.7 years (compared to just one year in 1986). That’s 4.7 years spent at an uncertain, high-stakes activity described by one researcher as 'highly autonomous, self-organized, loosely structured, and ill-defined', with individuals 'rarely [receiving] feedback about the effectiveness of the job-search activities and the strategies they are using.'

Throw in the societal pressure on young people to start careers immediately after graduating (not to mention their need to eat, pay rent, save for a rainy day, and enjoy life) and it’s little wonder that, among 18-24 year-old Australians currently looking for work, almost 28 per cent report experiencing anxiety during the previous twelve months; 24.7 per cent report having been depressed; and 41.2 per cent say they’ve been affected by stress.

What you can do about it (and what you can’t)

With youth mental health already a major challenge in Australia, the causes of the prolonged unemployment of new graduates merits serious attention. For the purposes of this article, however, it’s enough to remember that those causes are most likely structural in nature. As such, our focus on managing any stress you experience while job-hunting should not be taken to imply that you’re at fault for feeling stressed in the first place.

Let us be clear: It is not incumbent upon you to dismantle structural inequality, single-handedly address contemporary economic realities, solve unemployment, or somehow transcend the stress you may feel in response to legitimately stressful circumstances. What you can do is practice self-care, keep things in perspective, know when to access professional support, and implement strategies that maximise the chances of you finding a job without losing your joie de vivre. It is in that spirit that we offer the following tips.

1. Stay organized and know what you’re getting yourself into

Alas, job hunting is not as straightforward as updating your resume and sending it to as many prospective employers as possible. Rather, it’s a long process that involves researching career options, selecting appropriate job search engines, identifying relevant job advertisements, writing cover letters, responding to specific job criteria, securing interviews, preparing for interviews, and so on.

It mightn’t seem helpful to fixate on the details, but by taking the overall complexity of job-searching into account, you’ll be able to manage your expectations accordingly. You can also prepare more effectively to keep things under control when you find yourself managing multiple applications at different stages of the job-hunting process. For this, productivity tools like Trello or Asana are indispensable (check out this helpful guide to using Trello to manage your job hunt).

2. Set clear goals and approach the task with reasonable expectations

Your overarching goal is, of course, to get a job: but, as a day-to-day source of motivation, that ’s far too overwhelming to be of much use. Instead, you should focus on manageable steps towards getting a job. For example, your current goal might be to update your resume; submit three applications this week; revamp your LinkedIn profile; or spend half an hour a day looking at new job postings (tip: setting alerts can save you a lot of time).

By focusing on what you can reasonably accomplish within the short-term, you’ll be able to provide yourself with positive reinforcement while moving ever-closer towards securing a new job. You can also better avoid the trap of focusing on unreasonable goals: decide that your goal is to ‘find a six-figure job this week’ and you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. Remember, goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound.

3. Respect yourself enough to pursue the things that you’re passionate about  

Ideally, you’re not about to launch a career for which you feel absolutely zero enthusiasm. However, it’s also true that not everybody has an exhilarating job that fills them with satisfaction, offers exciting challenges, and feels as much like play as it does hard work. Most people compromise, and you may find yourself doing the same: that’s totally okay and often the only practical approach.

Still, it’s important to acknowledge that, perhaps, if you’re feeling unmotivated by your job search, it’s not because of some character defect or your unrealistic expectations: it could be because you simply don’t feel motivated by the jobs you’re considering. What could be more stressful than blaming yourself for wanting to be engaged by your career?

Yes, you may need to compromise: but you owe it to yourself to listen if your heart isn’t in the choices you’re making, and dedicate at least some of your time to looking for career opportunities that you do find genuinely exciting. Give yourself a chance.

4. Consider all of your options

Are you limiting yourself? Have you considered all the jobs for which you could make a competitive application? Are you unnecessarily restricting your search to certain industries, or locations, or ‘prestige’ companies?

Are you only applying for jobs online when there might be relevant networking events or careers fairs in your city? Have you reached out to that friend of a friend whose auntie’s second husband's sister’s Cocker Spaniel is the office dog at your dream company? Have you turned to careers guides or online quizzes for fresh ideas? Are you ruling out certain opportunities because, while you meet the listed job criteria, you’re certain that you’ll ‘never have a chance’? Have you given yourself a chance?

If your answer to all of those questions is ‘yes’, then well done: move on. If your answer to any of them is ‘no’, then it could help to adopt a more flexible approach to job-hunting. You’ll be giving yourself a little bit more space, and combating the (often misguided) sense that you’ve been backed into a corner. So consider every option: you don’t have to play all of the cards in your hand, but you should at least know what they are.

5. Commit to meditation and exercise

Full disclosure: no, meditation won’t increase rental housing affordability, or ‘manifest’ a perfect job with a six-figure salary, or spirit you away to an alternate dimension in which employers never require you to manually submit information online even though it’s already included on your resume. However, regular mindfulness meditation can combat stress; build emotional resilience; control anxiety; improve concentration; reduce addictive behaviour; foster a sense of well-being; and support goal-setting and attainment. Similarly, regular exercise has a direct (positive) impact on stress levels, releasing endorphins, improving your mood, and leading to more restful sleep.

The best thing about meditation and exercise is, of course, that they’re both free and you can start right now. A popular approach to learning meditation is to use an app like Headspace, Buddhify, or (our favourite) Insight Timer. Alternatively, use this government guide to choose a form of physical exercise that suits you and download an app like Runkeeper or Strava to track your progress.   

6. Simplify whatever you can simplify

  • Simplify as much as you can to make sure you don’t end up giving the task of finding a job far more time than is really necessary. Here are some tips:
  • Streamline the results by using relevant keywords.
  • Develop a ‘template’ cover letter and resume that can be tailored to each new application without requiring you to start from scratch.
  • Install a browser extension that lets you autofill online applications and forms (e.g. Chrome and Firefox).
  • Use the ‘Quick Apply’ function on websites like Seek or LinkedIn.
  • Let people know that you’re job-hunting and would appreciate any leads (i.e. make other people your ambassador).
  • Permit yourself to be shamelessly self-promoting on professional networks like LinkedIn (even for just a couple of weeks) and see if you can induce any employers to come to you.  

7. Schedule breaks and then take them

Relentless stress leads to burnout, and pre-existing burnout is not listed as a ‘desirable attribute’ on many job advertisements. Hence, while job hunting, it’s vitally important that you don’t push yourself too hard and run out of stream before landing a great gig. Know how to identify the signs of burnout and make sure that you don’t push past your personal point of diminishing returns. It’s especially important that you’re proactive about making regular breaks a priority. Unsure what to do?  Check out this page for some ideas or give yourself permission to spend 30 minutes doing nothing at all.  

8. Avoid prolonged isolation

Job-hunting can be a solitary exercise, with hours spent tweaking resumes, browsing job boards, drafting cover letters, and so on. This can easily create a nasty sort of feedback loop: the job-hunting is stressful, and the isolation it causes is stressful too, so, in a bid to get it all out of the way as quickly as possible, you double down on your efforts, which leads only to more stress and isolation.

However, human beings, as the phrase goes, are social animals. We’re hardwired to interact with one another and this is especially true during times of stress. So don’t let job-hunting consume your life: set your boundaries (as per the tip above) and then defend them without compromise. If you’ve spent all day working on an application, ignore the voice that says “another couple of hours won’t hurt!” It lies: head out and catch up with some friends instead.

9. Talk back to your inner critic

One of the most influential branches of contemporary clinical psychology—cognitive behavioural therapy—holds that our feelings are created by our thoughts, and that unhealthy feelings are therefore created by unhealthy thoughts. Thus, if hunting for a job is getting you down, it can help to tune in to your self-talk and make sure that it’s helping. Do you reward your own efforts with praise? Do you permit feelings of pride and accomplishment? Do you express gratitude towards yourself for earlier efforts, even if they haven’t yet come to fruition? These would be very encouraging signs.

However, you might discover that you’ve instead fallen prey to a cruel inner critic that saps your motivation and confidence by saying things like: “Why bother? They’ll never call you back” or “Everybody else you know has already got a job, loser” or “With marks like those, you might be able to make it as a living statue”. This kind of self-talk is toxic: it will only compound your stress and may, over time, lead to more serious problems. So, if you do have a snarky inner critic, then it could be time to put him or her in time out. You can find helpful techniques for developing a more compassionate inner dialogue here and here.

10. Know when healthy stress gives way to something more concerning and respond proactively

When looking for new work, a degree of stress is predictable. In fact, some stress may even be desirable: this healthy stress, or ‘eustress’, arises when you’re challenged, but not overwhelmed, and motivated, but not panicked. It’s the ‘stress’ of feeling stimulated and engaged.

However, it’s a different story if you start to feel overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed, any of which could indicate that your stress levels are getting out of hand. If you’re concerned, then you can start by reviewing the symptoms of unhealthy stress or, if relevant, the signs of depression and anxiety.

Make a commitment now to err on the side of caution. If you need help, or if you’re uncertain whether or not you need help, there are various free and confidential 24/7 services that can connect you with professional counselling and support. These include Lifeline, BeyondBlue, SANE Australia, and the National Suicide Callback Service.

Looking ahead

At some point soon, we hope your search delivers the goods and you find yourself with a great job that offers both professional and personal satisfaction. In the meantime, you can use the strategies above to manage your stress while remaining optimistic, confident, and open-minded. Be responsible: your mental health is far too important to be neglected while you search for employment, and unmanageable stress will only hold you back. As Billy Joel advises: 'Do what’s good for you, or you’re no good for anybody.'