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NSM Focus | University lecturer Karen Pak: “Employers still don’t know enough about sustainable employability”

Date of news: 23 June 2021

A promotion or reorganisation, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a move, new job or divorce and even the Covid-19 pandemic is one of them: a major life event. University lecturer Karen Pak investigates how staff policy can contribute positively to the sustainable employability of staff members who experience these kinds of life events.

“Every employee experiences a number of major life events, both at work and at home, that impact their well-being and performance. I often use the image of a battery; it can be charged, but also run flat. To avoid the latter, we can take advantage of a number of resources: qualities that help you to achieve your goals, learn new things and cope with the demands placed on you. Think, for example, of your physical and mental health, your social network, your professional values, the level of autonomy you have in your job and the support you receive from your supervisor.”

“If a major life event happens now, either positive or negative, it can cause changes in your arsenal of resources. An unexpected promotion, for instance, gives you a boost of self-confidence, while the loss of a partner can lead to depression and a decline in your resilience. Good staff policy can help employees feel motivated to continue working while going through a major life event - and HR managers and supervisors play a key role in this.”

Reduce workload or promote development?

Pak says that employees are often very well aware of what they need in case of a major life event. “But they are not always aware of what the possibilities are within the organisation. And because many managers do not have a background in HR, they are often unaware of exactly what interventions and tools are available to support staff in their employability. The first important step, therefore, is to start talking about needs and opportunities, and to share vital information.”


A major life event that employers regularly need to deal with is retirement. Traditionally, they tend to reduce the workload of staff approaching retirement age. However, research shows that this is not effective. In her PhD thesis, Pak explains that people who experience a major life event in their private lives appreciate having a (temporarily) diminished workload. Staff who experience a major life event at work, on the other hand, feel the need to use or further develop their qualities. Equipped with this knowledge, employers would do well to continue to encourage and stimulate their pensioners-to-be. In practice, however, this is not commonplace yet.

“There are many prejudices against the elderly: they are slow, unable and unwilling to learn, call in sick all the time, ... Even though many stereotypes have been debunked by several studies, many employers insist on staff taking more time off, exempting them from training and cancelling tasks. This is a shame, because many over-60s would like to continue working. Give them this opportunity: pair up younger and older colleagues, make them work together and learn from each other and make use of each other's knowledge and experience. Strengthen resources and strengthen the employability of your staff accordingly.”

Urgent issue

Keeping staff sustainably employable is an urgent social issue. Pak: “Just look at the increasing staff shortages in IT, care and education. In order to change this, young people need to be recruited and older workers need to be employed for longer. How good staff policy can help make a positive change to this remains unclear. There really is much to be achieved in this.”

Pak’s research field is vast, as is her drive and enthusiasm. “I am also very curious about what impact the Covid-19 pandemic will have - a life event of unprecedented size that everyone has to deal with. What are its effects in the longer term? Young parents, for example, found it extremely stressful to combine working from home and homeschooling their children, while older workers seem to have coped with this change quite well. We can see an important difference in resources here. What kind of thought process has this triggered in people about their work and lives? What changes will this bring about and how will employers respond? Some of my students recently conducted some initial interviews on this topic within their networks. I’m going to study that data this summer. Fun! I’ll be busy for some time.”