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Jelena Zikic is an Associate Professor at York University. In her research and practice, she explores a combination of career and life transitions of diverse populations.

Pandemic measures have had significant consequences on our career aspirations and our lives outside of work. Many individuals have had to give up certain aspects of their careers or alter future plans. This conscious decision to give up career goals or to reshape and accommodate for work-life realities is defined as career sacrifice.

These types of career decisions are never easy and range from smaller sacrifices or one-time decisions, such as postponing further study or skipping a vacation, to more significant ones, such as turning down a promotion, pursuing early retirement or having to give up working in a specific occupation. All career sacrifice decisions involve weighing the pros and cons in the context of our careers and lives outside work, and many of these decisions affect close family and friends. For example, working long hours and giving up vacation time may seem like a small sacrifice to the worker, but it may have a negative effect on their relationships. Sacrifice can also be motivated or triggered by issues related to relationships and life outside work, such as having to take care of the family member or a major move.

The ‘how’ of career sacrifice

Each type of sacrifice is different, and while it is hard to provide a general “recipe” for how or when to do it, It will require careful planning and consideration of future consequences. The individual should first consider which domains of life will be affected and whether it is a short or long-term sacrifice. However, when the sacrifice is motivated by uncertainty and changes in the labour market, such as a pandemic, it may be difficult to foresee the future, so it is important to rely on quick and creative solutions plus seek advice from colleagues, coaches and loved ones.

Similarly, a career sacrifice decision likely represents a “discontinuity” – a type of career interruption. The worker needs to reconstruct their career and seek to create a sense of continuity. Readiness and the ability to tolerate and manage uncertainty will help when making career sacrifice decisions.

This means that any type of decision also involves self-management skills. Workers must be their own career coach. It is the individual who has the best knowledge of their own career plans, family and other responsibilities. After all, engaging in career sacrifice involves holistically considering personal values, the meaning of work, as well as people we work with and live with.

Inevitably, sacrifice may also lead to regret as some opportunities may have to be missed. To help with feelings of regret, think of career sacrifice decisions in the context of one’s values; that is, strong adherence to one’s work values or family dedication or even cultural values and expectations.

Making these decisions may also have direct impact on important relationships at work. The worker may, for example, decide to pass up a rare career opportunity because of a commitment to a current team or leader or a major project. At times, sacrifice may lead to pursuing the less desirable option, while it may be for the greater good of the team or organization, and one’s image and reputation may be positively or negatively affected depending on the type of sacrifice.

On the managerial side, providing understanding, support and accommodation for a variety of outcomes, both pre-and post-decision, may be critical. It is also important to show gratitude to employees who sacrifice for the benefit of the organization.

Finally, when a sacrifice is made to benefit family or life outside work, it can have a positive spillover effect, for example, deciding to take time off to care for a loved one or for parental leave. Career sacrifice may be a signal of long-term relationship commitment and lead to greater relationship satisfaction in the future.

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