Why You Should Make ‘Career Cushioning’ Part of Your Job This Year

A back-up plan will protect you should anything go wrong with your 9-5
(illustration: iStock)

Have you ever casually browsed job boards, just to see what’s out there? Taken a recruiter’s call, even though you’re not sure you want to leave your current role anytime soon? Started a side hustle because it never hurts to have a Plan B? Congratulations, you were “career cushioning”—which means you’re ready for 2023’s buzziest work trend. 

In a nutshell, career cushioning is exactly what it sounds like: Being proactive about your career prospects to soften the blow should anything go wrong with your current job, whether that’s layoffs, a toxic boss or just waking up with the sudden realization that you’re stuck in a role that no longer serves you. 

It’s about keeping your options open, says Miriam Groom, an industrial therapist, career coach and founder of Montreal-based Mindful Career counselling service. She says the motivations are similar to what drove 2021’s “Great Resignation,” which saw 47.8 million Americans quit their jobs. (Although we didn’t see as many workers flat-out quitting here, according to the Financial Post, 24 per cent of Canadians changed jobs during this period.) The record-setting numbers were driven by workers being underpaid, experiencing a lack of opportunity for advancement and feeling disrespected at work, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Since Covid, Groom says she’s noticed a huge spike in demand for career coaching. “People are not settling anymore,” she says. “They’re thinking, ‘Why am I working for this boss? Why am I commuting this far? Why am I even in this job?’” 

Career cushioning, Groom says, is a way for people to explore those questions while still being able to pay their bills. Instead of quitting with nothing else lined up, some are waiting to find a gig that better aligns with their values. “A lot of people are sitting back in these corporate roles, and wanting to make a switch from large organizations to something a bit more grassroots where they can make a positive impact on the world,” Groom says. 

Others are worried about the looming threat of a recession, which feels more real after the recent wave of layoffs in industries like tech. “People are career cushioning even more than ‘quiet quitting’ now,” says Groom, referring 2022’s workplace buzzword, which was all about doing the bare minimum, empowered by a labour shortage that made it much less likely workers would be penalized. But instead of going back to putting in extra, unpaid hours at a job they are unhappy in, workers are getting smarter and spending that time on diversifying their income streams or looking for new opportunities. 

How to career cushion 

If you’re contemplating a career change, bored in your current role or concerned about losing your job, the easiest way to career cushion is to make yourself easy to find on LinkedIn. That way, opportunities are more likely to come to you. “People are often unaware that there are headhunters and recruiters actively looking for workers like you,” says Groom. The best way to hack the algorithm? “Update your LinkedIn with key words relevant to the job you want,” she says. Recruiters use LinkedIn like Google: They enter search terms, and find candidates through the results. Groom says to start by searching for your ideal role on the networking platform, and bookmark five jobs that match your criteria. Note the language used in each of the job descriptions and add some of those keywords to your own profile—in your headline, your “about” section and in your descriptions of your past experiences. For example, if the keywords you identified are “customer excellence,” “10+ years experience” and “pharmaceutical industry,” your profile might say: “A passionate sales executive who prioritizes customer excellence with 10+ years experience in the pharmaceutical industry.”

You can also add a “slash” to your titles to make yourself come up for jobs that are close to what you’ve done in the past, and that you could easily transition into. For example: You currently work as a project manager, but want to become a product manager, a similar role but one that focuses more on overall strategy rather than shepherding the day-to-day deliverables of a project. In this case, Groome recommends changing your headline on LinkedIn to “project manager/product manager” so recruiters who are looking to fill either position can find you. To avoid your boss spotting your update, make sure you turn off your “notify my network” setting—a feature that updates your connections to any changes you make to your profile.

Work with a career coach

If you’re looking to move into something new, a career coach who has a background in recruiting is a good resource. This is because they have insight into industries or types of work that you might not have considered. Career coaches can help you “reverse engineer” your existing résumé and skill set so you come up in searches that match the type of jobs that you’re qualified for, even if they’re outside your niche. “They know how the other side works,” explains Groom. “If you’re a lawyer who works for the government, a pharmaceutical company might want to hire you because you know how to get applications through government processes.”

At Mindful Career, Groom’s team conducts a “behavioural profile” of candidates, using interviews and psychometric assessments to figure out what a job seeker should be doing based on what motivates them. You can be in the wrong company, the wrong role or the wrong work environment. If you test as an introvert, for example, you might be best suited for hybrid or remote roles.

Think outside of just switching jobs

People are often on the right path, in the right industry, but need a small shift, Groom says. In her case, she was working in consulting doing industrial psychology—which satisfied her motivation for status and money—but she benefited from starting her own coaching business because she’s also motivated by giving back. “It was finding my balance, and adding something, not taking it away,” she says. 

This is a form of career cushioning that’s less about finding a new job, and more about thinking how you can make your current situation work better for you. For some people, that could mean going part-time to create more time to focus on a new business venture. It could also be doing the same kind of work, just at a company that’s a better fit for you, like a lawyer who leaves corporate law to join a firm that specializes in pro-bono work. Or, it could be finding new responsibilities at your workplace so that you feel you’re making yourself invaluable and are less worried about being impacted by layoffs.

Develop new skills 

One way to future-proof your résumé or expand your career horizons is to develop new skills. These could be related to what you already do, or if you’re interested in exploring other avenues, they could be things that would smooth your transition to a new industry. Take, for example, a current client of Groom’s who strongly suspects imminent layoffs at their company. This person works in recruitment, but is getting a certificate that’s not needed for their current job, but may pave the way for a potential path in human resources if they do get let go.

Even better: Try to see if your current company will pay for new certifications, like SEO or email marketing, which are often covered under training budgets or personal development funds. “Certificates are great, because you can really hone in on the specific skills you may be lacking,” says Groom. Google and LinkedIn have free course options, while the likes of Harvard and Princeton offer online courses that run in the thousands of dollars, but come with name recognition. Micro-credentials are another way to boost your resume and attract new opportunities.  

Get a side hustle

“A lot of people are career cushioning by going entrepreneurial,” says Groom, whether that’s taking on part-time contract work on the side or launching a whole new venture by monetizing a hobby. Someone who makes beautiful ceramics might set up a storefront on a platform like Etsy. “It’s super cheap and you can do it in your spare time.” Pro tip: Create a location for your business on Google, and get reviews from people that you’ve worked with. “It takes some time, but people will start calling you, and before you know it you’ll be busy enough to quit your job,” says Groom. The advantage of building your own side hustle is that if you do lose your “main” job, you’d have some income from your side job to fall back on while you look for work. Or, you could slowly build up this business with the goal to one day become your full-time gig. 

That said: Tread carefully. “I had an employer call me the other day who was frustrated because an employee said, ‘Oh, I can’t make that meeting because I’m doing my side job,’ in the middle of the day,” says Groom. “I would not suggest you do this during working hours.” Also, look closely at your employment contract because it may say you can only work for one company at a time. 

Networking is part of career cushioning

“Most networking right now happens through LinkedIn,” says Groom, cautioning that you should really know what job you want before you start reaching out to people. If you’re flailing around, unsure of where you actually want to end up, you’ll just be wasting your time—and theirs. Let’s say you’re in accounting, and you want another accounting job one level up. “Find an executive working for your ideal company, and connect with them, adding a note in the message section,” she says. “Ask them if you can grab a coffee or have a Zoom chat.” Tell them what your goals are, what you’d like to do, and see what happens.

“Finding a mentor is also a great way of career cushioning,” says Groom. “This relationship can help you make valuable connections in your industry.” That said, it usually takes persistence before you find that right person. Often, the person you approach first might not have time to take you on, but they could know someone else who might. “You just have to keep asking,” says Groom. “Be very specific about what you want, and what you’re looking for.”

Sarah Laing
Sarah Laing
Sarah Laing is a freelance writer who has written for outlets like The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, The Kit and, of course, Canadian Business. She was formerly culture editor at ELLE Canada.