• Stephanie Taube

Lessons from Behavioral Science in Promoting Job Seeker Health, Resilience, and Motivation

By: Stephanie Taube (Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School)


Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment rates in the US dramatically increased, and today -- more than one year later -- the unemployment rate remains higher than before the pandemic. While job searches are often arduous and can take a toll on mental health, job centers and online course providers are uniquely positioned to support job seekers in their efforts to reskill, upskill, and secure employment.


In the Spring of 2021, our team set out to 1) better understand the experiences and challenges of today’s job seekers, and 2) identify strategies and practices that encourage positive job seeker behavior. Organizations, programs and products designed to support job seekers can leverage these insights to help keep consumers healthy, engaged, and motivated to complete training and find a new job.


For many unemployed adults, job searches are marked by considerable uncertainty and anxiety, sentiments which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and economic downturn. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center provides a snapshot on the outlook of unemployed adults in the US in January of 2021. Insights from the survey include:


In early 2021, job seekers felt pessimistic about their job prospects. According to the survey, nearly half of unemployed adults reported feeling pessimistic about finding a job in the near future (49%).


Unemployed adults believed they did not have enough education and training. While some studies indicate a growing skepticism of the value of traditional higher education, 30% of Pew Research Center survey respondents -- and 34% of those without 4-year degrees -- indicated a belief that they did not have the education or training needed to get a job.


Most job seekers had seriously considered changing occupation or field of work. A full two-thirds of respondents reported that they had seriously considered changing their occupation or field of work in order to find employment.


Unemployed adults experienced more mental health issues than usual. Many previous studies have found an association between unemployment and negative mental health outcomes, which is consistent with results from the Pew Research Center survey. Among survey respondents, 70% felt more stressed than usual due to unemployment, and 56% had experienced more emotional or mental health issues than usual as a result of being unemployed.


In addition to helping job seekers secure training and job opportunities, these findings signal an opportunity for organizations that serve job seekers -- including job centers, course providers, government agencies, community-based organizations, and workforce training providers -- to offer encouragement, motivation, and mental health resources to consumers.


Best Practices from Successful Employment and Training Programs


In our research on effective employment and training programs, we identified a number of best practices that promote participant engagement, motivation, resilience and mental health. While many unemployed adults feel anxious and pessimistic about their job prospects, organizations designed to serve job seekers can leverage these practices to support job seekers:


Effective onboarding includes clear benefits and next steps. Research indicates that a well-designed onboarding session can significantly improve job seeker engagement in employment programs and retention in online courses. Effective onboarding should include explicit benefits -- how will the course or program support participants in reaching their goals? -- and describe clear, concrete next steps -- following the onboarding session, the participant should know precisely what action to take. Ensuring both the benefits and next steps are clear helps set participants up for success.


Successful programs support job seeker health and resilience. As mentioned, the majority of today’s job seekers report experiencing more stress and mental health issues than usual. Research indicates successful employment programs provide resources to job seekers to improve their health and wellness while on the job hunt. Rejection and uncertainty is also part of the typical job search, and research shows that successful programs help job seekers build skills to cope with rejection and build resilience.


Personalized assistance is most impactful. Studies show that effective employment programs provide personalized assistance for job seekers, based on personal needs and preferences. Job center staff may take into account participant schedule and availability as well as communication style, skills, interests, and goals. Research also indicates that job coaches are particularly “important supports for equitable economic mobility.” Job coaches can support consumers by encouraging individuals to set and meet goals, and helping them navigate complex and siloed workforce and training systems.


Behavioral Sciences and Positive Job Seeker Behavior


We also explored findings from behavioral sciences research, identifying effective methods to promote positive job seeker behavior such as creating new habits and meeting commitments. Employment programs, course providers, and other organizations that serve job seekers can promote positive behaviors by leveraging these insights:


User commitment increases the likelihood of follow-through. Behavioral science research indicates when individuals commit to taking a desired action at a specific moment in the future, either verbally or in writing, they are more likely to follow through. For example, job coaches and course providers can provide consumers with opportunities to commit to taking specific actions (e.g. completing coursework) at particular times (e.g. each Monday from 9 to 11am) to support job seeker success.


Optimistic messaging, paired with clear labor market statistics, can encourage job seeker action. While many job seekers report feeling pessimistic about the job search, research shows positive and encouraging messages increase motivation. Another study found that positive messages, coupled with clear and accurate labor market statistics, can improve job seeker outcomes in employment and income. For example, presenting statistics on the number of new job postings followed by a message like, “Now is a great time to update your resume” can encourage job seekers to take positive action, such as (in this case) updating their resume.


Social norms can encourage positive job seeker behavior. When used in a responsible and transparent manner, organizations can leverage the influence of social norms to promote positive job seeker behavior and support consumers in reaching their goals. For example, it may be helpful to share the total number of participants who have taken a specific positive action -- such as attending weekly meetings with their job coach -- to encourage others to do the same.


Simple behavioral nudges, like text reminders, can improve participation. Behavioral nudges encourage positive behavior by guiding users to the outcomes they desire. Nudges can be simple and low-cost, and increase success in career or training programs. Some effective behavioral nudges used by organizations designed to support job seekers include personalized text message reminders about job fairs, and email reminders encouraging unemployed adults to start their job search.


These findings on best practices and behavioral nudges, while not exhaustive, provide an introduction for organizations seeking to enhance their support for job seekers. And while the time and effort to implement these practices may vary, many can be carried out with relatively minor adjustments to existing practices (such as updating onboarding content) and resources (such as sharing a link to a free course on “building resilience”).


Additionally, while these findings can inform practices for job center staff and online course providers, the insights are also relevant to Harvard initiatives. For example our team leveraged several of these findings to enhance Skillbase, an online learning resource aggregator for job seekers and an initiative of the Project on Workforce. Specifically, we added more content for job seekers on the topics of motivation, resilience, and mental health. We also promoted some of this content to the site’s home page to demonstrate our empathy and compassion for Skillbase users, acknowledging the difficulties that many are experiencing today.


These findings, drawn from literature in the behavioral sciences and economics, can support organizations -- including course providers, job centers, community-based programs, and government agencies -- in better serving job seekers during this challenging time.