On the Clock

The Government Shutdown and You

How to handle being in limbo—and get ahead—whether you’re in the public or private sector. 

You may know someone who’s affected by the ongoing US government shutdown, in which thousands of employees aren’t getting paid to work or are being forced not to work. And while the private sector may not have an exact equivalent—though private-sector contractors are losing $245 million each day during the shutdown—there are plenty of instances where professionals have come up against a divided governing body: mergers, reorganizations, and layoffs, to name just a few.

Of course, work stoppages or working with limited resources can drain both your budget and your morale. But career pros say these instances can also be an opportunity to increase your engagement at work and get ahead. “You have a great opportunity in front of you if you can see it that way—even if you just focus on the little things, like your inbox no longer filling up,” says Alexander Lowry, a former JPMorgan executive and the executive director of the master of science in financial analysis program at Gordon College in Massachusetts. 

Furloughs and shutdowns can be great opportunities to prove yourself. 

Fewer emails are just one perk of navigating the changing dynamics during partial shutdowns. Here’s how to prove yourself during a time of need, and potentially boost your career.

Get ahead.

The most common reaction to being furloughed or told you’re going to need to work without pay or overtime is to panic. Your workflow is going to be disrupted, wages may be affected, and, well, it’s demoralizing. But if you can look beyond the immediate issues, career pros say the time can help you catch up on things you’re behind on and is an opportunity to really evaluate where you are in your career. “If you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to be at the whim of the government or a boss,’ you can use this time to invest in yourself and your future,” Lowry says. In practice, that may mean updating your resume or LinkedIn profile, spending extra time on your side hustle, or taking online courses to learn new skills.

If you’re still working, focus on performing at the highest level, so that in six months, when performance-review time comes around, you’re recognized as being someone who stepped up when the chips were down. 

Be the pinch hitter.

Furloughs and shutdowns often aren’t complete closures. Rather, they’re partial, which means some part of the business is still up and running—even if all the employees needed to run the operation smoothly aren’t present. Such scenarios can be great opportunities to demonstrate your agility and learn something new. Perhaps your manager would’ve balked at letting you learn the company’s new coding system during normal work hours. But now he or she may be more than willing to have you take it on, because there’s no one else to do the mission-critical coding. The boss, in turn, most likely will be thrilled you’re stepping up. 

Maintain your morale.

It’s justifiable to feel down if your company is going through hardships. But it’s important to recognize the difference between what’s happening on the outside and what’s happening inside your head. Researchers refer to these ideas as “intrinsic motivation” and “extrinsic motivation.” You can think of intrinsic motivation as what gets you out of bed—what motivates you to work hard and climb to the next level. Extrinsic motivation is what you see within the organization; a rally-the-troops email from the CEO or incentives from a manager.

According to a Korn Ferry survey, 59% of global employees feel extrinsically motivated, meaning more than 40% of workers don’t feel their companies keep them motivated. What that translates to during tough times—like partial shutdowns—is a waning of extrinsic motivation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean your intrinsic motivation has to follow suit. “Engaged employees are more willing to accept and embrace the organizational changes needed to address customer concerns and cost issues,” notes Mark Royal, a Korn Ferry senior director who helps firms with their employee engagement efforts. With that in mind, try to find a way to rise above it. And remember: no furlough has ever lasted forever. At least not yet.

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