How to build sustainable careers

Sustainable careers provide a win-win situation for employers, employees and the government. But how can they be achieved?

It has always been a struggle to balance competitive organisations, a competitive economy and a healthy society (social cohesion and quality of life for all) in the long term. It is often thought that achieving all three simultaneously may not be possible.

However, though it may be difficult, many experts believe this balance can be achieved through ‘sustainable careers’.

In the past four decades we have witnessed remarkable changes in employment practices and the way people work. Most people feel that their work has intensified over the years and that employment has become more precarious.

Precarious employment:

Employers warned not to shirk responsibility for contractors

Wage stagnation threatens wellbeing of low-paid workers despite record high starting salaries

Young people struggle to find quality jobs post-pandemic

From what we have seen over the last 40 years, including the 1987 stock market crash, the 2001 bubble burst, and 2008 global recession, we now know three things for certain:

1. That work intensification combined with employment uncertainty increases employee stress. This then negatively impacts performance and also leads to increased rates of sickness and work accidents. Furthermore, employment uncertainty destabilises the economy and society overall because, when people are uncertain about their futures, they do not make long-term financial and personal commitments. This all then creates a vicious cycle.

2. And that the current pace of technological and social change demands that workers keep their knowledge and skills up to date. This means that the need for continuous learning is much greater today than it has been in any other time in human history.

3. That the rising demands for innovation, quality and flexibility necessitates a more committed and engaged workforce. However, it is paradoxical to demand commitment and engagement when employers do not provide security and support in return.

These three challenges have generated the idea of sustainable careers. It’s a concept that only appeared back in 2015 but has already gained much momentum since.

Sustainable careers come as a response to the following questions: How will it be possible for workers to be productive in the long term, hence helping their employers and the country to maintain their competitiveness within an environment that is fast changing and often unpredictable?

And how will it be possible for society to remain stable and harmonious, while also offering citizens opportunities to enjoy prosperous lives?

A sustainable career ultimately means the ability of workers to maintain the following areas in the long term:

  • Employability: The ability to be employed or to find new employment if this becomes necessary. Employability is achieved through constant learning and a capacity to be mentally flexible.
  • Job performance: To perform well requires up-to-date knowledge and skills, creativity and psychological resources such as optimism and perseverance.
  • Work/life balance: To be able to purse non-work interests and accommodate personal needs (for example, time off work for personal matters, such as family time and personal development).
  • Health: Both physical and mental health is critical for a number of reasons.
    • Lack of physical health makes it difficult to perform well in a consistent manner
    • Impaired mental health restricts an individual’s ability to deal with demanding and challenging issues in work and personal life
    • Poor health imposes burdens on both employers and society
    • Poor health reduces the capacity to maintain employability
    • Poor health reduces the ability to enjoy what life has to offer. Apart from its inherent value, not enjoying life makes people less motivated to invest in learning and expend effort at work, creating a vicious cycle.

So, who should be tasked with ensuring future careers are sustainable?

Well, sustainable careers, in which workers have employability, job performance, work/life balance and health in the long term, can be achieved only if government, employers, and employees all work in synergy.

Government: Governments must, together with employers, invest in lifelong education and development opportunities for citizens; implement employment legislation that does not compromise the sense of security for employees; and invest in support systems, such as good healthcare and a fair benefits systems.

Employers: Employers must provide employees with opportunities for development, employment security, and support to deal with personal, non-work issues. We know that employers that offer these things then gain much higher commitment and output from their employees in return.

Individuals: Individuals who are part of the workforce must understand that, apart from their employer and the government, it is also their own responsibility to invest in their own employability, to be flexible, and to be supportive towards both their employer and society.

If we really want to ensure that careers of the future are sustainable, then all stakeholders must do their bit and work in synergy to achieve this. Do this and we can ensure that companies remain competitive, the economy is competitive and society is healthy.


Nikos Bozionelos is a professor of international HR management at EMLyon Business School