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Probe Clients' Work Identity to Improve Rapport

Article Originally Published in The Advocate- Journal for the American Mental Health Counselors Association

One initial challenge of working with clients is building rapport. Since clients' choice of work and their job loyalty can be significant, the counselor's understanding of occupational socialization can assist them in connecting with a particular client or creating an opening in which to discuss emotional material.

Traditionally, the therapeutic focus on socialization refers to socialization that occurs during a client's childhood or in his or her family of origin. But by focusing on the phenomenon of occupational socialization, counselors can build rapport with clients and serve them more effectively.

Occupational socialization can occur in any job setting in which a prolonged training period (such as internships or attendence at training academies) is required for job entry. Socialization can also occur when a particular job subculture is unique or relatively closed to outsiders.

Firefighters, police officers and the military internally socialize new members in training academy or basic training. These programs all function to enable the members of these groups to share a similar philosophy, such as the team concept and the importance of strict discipline. Often the underlying message is that the members of these groups should think and behave the same way or face undesirable social or safety consequences. In psychology, this is a form of socialization.

A review of current research in this area yields a number of insights that can assist mental health counselors in building rapport with clients and better understanding occupational variables. For example, socialization often occurs in the internship or training phase of the job, such as when members of the military and public safety professions learn to suppress emotions until the job is finished or the mission completed.

New entrants to a profession often learn coping skills from colleagues or more senior members of the group in the same way that new doctors learn appropriate "bedside manner" from more established physicians. Some groups reinforce the idea of maintaining emotionally strong posture while in public. Others have unspoken or implied ideas about emotional displays or remarks. Some occupational groups have fairly standard ideas about how to cope with emotional issues, the inadequacy of outsiders' ability to help them, and reliance on peers. Some of these perceptions can limit the counselor's ability to understand the unique circumstances of a client's occupational situation. Understanding these job-related perceptions can enable counselors to better assist the client.

Groups such as the military or public saftey professions are obvious examples of professions that socialize their members in distinct ways. However, counselors should challenge themselves to consider any occupational group in which socialization may have taken place. For example, is a clergyperson really not a cleric when on duty? To what degree does a mental health worker relax and take a break from taking care of people? Is a police officer, nurse, or physician really ever off duty? The critically thinking clinician will realize that the answer is not simply, "yes or no," but is found somewhere in the middle.

Ask Questions to Determine the Role of Work in a Client's Life

We might benefit by asking certain questions when moving from concept to application of this material. First, what is the function of the job in the life of the individual? If you take away a clergyperson's credentials, what is left of their persona - who are they? Does this individual work through longstanding personal issues by functioning within his or her chosen occupation?

For example, a firefighter client reported the following: "I played college football at a medium-sized university. I had a promising career but suffered a career-ending injury. Football was many things to me - an avenue for escape and success, status, and an identity. The fire department is a place where I feel the same way." The counselor later learned that this young man had used football to escape his low self-esteem. This client used the fire service to serve the same function that football had served.

What are the needs and expectations of the group? How close-knit is the occupational group and what are some of the generalizations and misconceptions of the group? An intensive care unit nurse that reports she finds it difficult to talk with those outside the healthcare profession about her job. On the surface, she cites that "others simply would not understand," and that is the futile to talk to others about her feelings. Further examination of this claim revealed that the nurse wanted to protect outsiders from some of the horrific stories that she had experieneced in her work.

Of course, generalizations and stereotypes about individuals in different professionals should be avoided. All nurses and other helpers will not react the same way. However, mental health counselors should check in with each individual and learn about the philosophies of the ocupational group. Some occupational groups are more closed that others. It is incumbent on clinicians to assess each client's individual situation and evaluate how the concept of occupational socialization can be used in the terapeutic process.

Assessing the Extent of a Client's Job Socialization

Being aware of the occupational variables that can influence each client's therapeutic process would enhance the clinician's ability to serve such populations. The first step is to identify clients who have been occupationally socialized, taking care not to miss people in jobs other than public safety or the military.

Each of the following four clusters of questions will help mental health counselors assess the extent to which a client's identitification with a profesison influences his or her self-perception.

#1 - Job Involvement and Identification of "Target" Occupations

1. What is the client's degree of job involvement?

How much is the occupation connected to the client's persona?

If one took away the job, what would be left of the client's identity?

2. How is family and role status connected to the client's occupational choice?

Is the client a caretaker in family settings?

Does a connection exist between family role and occupational role?

3. Why did the client select this occupation? What was the path to selection?

Was a parent engaged in the same occupation (occupational following)?

Does engaging in the occupation meeting any of the deep-seated needs?

4. How does personality type fit in with the selected profession?

For example, some firefighters and soldiers like the team aspect of their jobs. Some healthcare workers have a strong need to nurture others.

5. How does stress manifest itself in the occupation for the particular client?

Stereotypes do not always hold true. For instance, emotionally traumatic situations do not affect all firefighters the same way, and not all soldiers and military personnel are in combat situations.

#2 - Ability to Cope

1. What is the maturity level of the client? At what stage of the career is the client?

A new teacher and an experienced teacher might have different outlooks on the job and global job stress. The difference in chronological age might be variable in assessing maturity issues.

2. How has the client learned to cope in the particular job subculture or occupational environment?

What is the work environment like for managers and supervisors? Has the client learned coping techniques developed by a collaboration of managers in an environement that tends to be hostile toward them? Do higher level executives expect them to project a strong image and not to complain about these difficulties?

3. How do others in this occupational setting tend to cope with stress? What types of socialization have occurred in the occupational setting?

Some occupations such as police, firefighters and military personnel are socialized during their training about the preferred method of coping. Military basic training, fire and police academies, and various internships provide direct and implied messages about how individuals should cope in traumatic and stressful situations.

#3- Fulfillment of Needs While Engaging in the Selected Occupation

1. What is the client passionate about? How is the passion related to his or her occupational choice?

Remember that the occupational choice could have been selected because the client might be "working through" the loss of a certain activity or life situation.

2. How does the occupation help meet some of the client's basic needs?

Some individuals report that their jobs are more than simply a way to earn a living. Questioning in this area might provide clues about longstanding needs and goals.

3. What functions does the occupation have for the client?

Occupations such as an architect or a photographer might meet a client's need for creativity. Questioning within the context of a need for creativity might yeild additional information about the client that might not be discovered in other lines of questioning.

#4- Safeguards to Prevent Clinician Bias

1. What are the biases of the counselor regarding this occupation?

2. What information base (for instance, scientific or popular lore) is the clinician using to arrive at conclusions about a particular occupation?

3. What previous experiences has the clinician had with people in the particular profession (in and out of clinical sessions)?

4. What popular misconceptions and stereotypes exist about people in this profession?

5. What steps can the counselor take (such as consultation or supervision) to overcome such biases?

6. Has the counselor taken concrete steps to remain objective with individuals enegaged in this profession?

Benefits of Occupational Assessment

Evaluating the functions that each client's occupation serves in the life of the client cna be beneficial in several ways. First, this type of evaluation can assist the clinician in building rapport with the client. It can also enable the counselor to obtain new clients in this occupational group and perhaps even lead to the counselor specializing in that particular group or subculture. Evaluating occupational variables can also lead to emotional material that might otherwise be hard to access.

Much can be learned about clients by engaging them in dialogue about their work. Therapists should also make an effort to recognize subcultures in the occupational setting that can enhance or limit the process of counseling.

The need for specialization and increased focus in this area will grow as the workforce and our society changes. It will be continually beneficial for clinicians to meet these needs in an effective, professional manner.

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