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Firms in the Middle East are downsizing. Does the workforce have a backup plan?

Preparation is key, even if you’re not actively looking to change jobs.

Firms in the Middle East are downsizing. Does the workforce have a backup plan?
[Source photo: Krishna Prasad/Fast Company Middle East]

Several trends have upended the job market over the past two years: the Great Resignation, the Great Reshuffle, Quiet Quitting, and the Invisible Revolution, but career cushioning that started as a buzzword in 2022, has earned its place as a permanent fixture in the workplace. 

It hasn’t got to do much with one’s current job and doesn’t necessarily mean shifting jobs. It’s a phenomenon related to making backup plans – upskilling, reskilling, cross-skilling – in the event of layoffs, downsizing, reshuffling and cost-cutting.

​​Based on a survey conducted in 2023 by the recruitment firm Robert Walters, over one-third (37%) of the 2,000 professionals in office-based roles who participated in the study were actively pursuing new job opportunities. Additionally, the survey revealed that 66% of respondents had been watching the job market, while 43% had taken the initiative to revise their resumes.

“Recent trends, such as the downsizing of big tech companies after a significant post-pandemic recruitment surge, have led to skepticism regarding job tenure. This has contributed to career cushioning, where individuals keep themselves open to opportunities from headhunters and recruiters as a form of self-preservation,” says Nathan Farrugia, Managing Director of Vistage.

In a wider context, LinkedIn reported an 18% increase in job applications in mid-2023 compared to the previous year. Concurrently, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of companies implementing workforce reductions, particularly in the technology, media, finance, and retail sectors. As 2024 nears the end of the first quarter, employees are experiencing heightened apprehension and a sense of urgency to be ready for potential changes in the workforce.

The downside of career cushioning is that no crystal ball will predict when it will come in handy. “We need to be prepared for change. We need to be able to negotiate our position and be ready for anything life throws at us,” says Ramona da Gama, business growth strategy coach, mentor, and motivational speaker. 

Turbulent times often go hand-in-hand with unease surrounding job security. This pervasive apprehension weighs heavily on employees, casting doubt over their prospects and livelihoods. 

“Currently, we are seeing layoffs regionally from big businesses – for Gen Z workers, this could be the first time they have seen this. Taking a proactive approach can help,” says Mark Timms, co-founder of GRG, a Dubai-based recruitment and executive search firm. 


If career cushioning means dabbling in side gigs for a second income or upskilling to explore another path that may offer rich dividends, the question of a career being a means to an end of survival comes into question. Is personal fulfillment in a job even possible in this turbulent economy? 

Delving into the complex interplay between job security and personal fulfillment, Farrugia contends that achieving both poses a formidable challenge, highlighting the critical role of organizational structures in facilitating individual growth and longevity in careers. 

According to Farrugia, companies prioritizing employee fulfillment inherently enhance job security, emphasizing the importance of providing psychological safety alongside financial stability. “Companies that prioritize the personal fulfillment of their employees inevitably foster greater job security among their workforce,” he adds. 

Highlighting the difference between positive risk-taking and simply risky behavior, Timms says, “If your industry is going through layoffs or a downturn, resigning because you are unhappy may not be the best move.”

“Personal fulfillment doesn’t need to be overtaken by stress and worry about the job market. Staying agile, informed, and resilient is a great form of self-care — it leaves you in a good position to make good choices when needed,” adds Timms. 

Career cushioning provides an avenue for employees to look out for themselves. “Employees, like employers, must now start taking care of themselves. They must put in place all the mechanisms they need to survive,”  says Da Gama. 

While it’s natural for individuals to prioritize their career security, it’s crucial not to detract too much attention from current roles while exploring external options, says Farrugia. “It’s often a more strategic approach to focus on enhancing influence and dependability within one’s current organization, thus reducing the likelihood of being affected by downsizing efforts.” 


Preparation is key, even if you’re not actively looking to change jobs. It’s prudent to have a back-up plan, experts say. 

According to Farrugia, navigating career or role changes requires a comprehensive approach. This involves broadening your skillset, gaining relevant experience, and building a robust network. Understanding the recruitment landscape, including current salary offerings and skill requirements, is crucial for identifying areas for skill improvement. Additionally, developing self-awareness and leveraging strengths backed by solid references and evidence of accomplishments enhances one’s marketability. Finally, building financial security while employed provides a cushion during job transitions, alleviating the pressure to accept suboptimal opportunities.

“Being proactive and creating additional opportunities for yourself in the event of a layoff or sudden termination is a smart move,” says Timms.

Furthermore, career cushioning begins with staying informed about market trends and industry developments. Agility and adaptability are crucial skills in navigating unforeseen changes in the workplace. Embracing new challenges, remaining open to learning, and actively seeking opportunities for growth and development are recommended strategies. Timms suggests staying informed about emerging opportunities and skill demands in different sectors to make informed decisions that enhance job security and align with personal interests and career goals.

Staying informed and proactive in the face of organizational changes cannot be overstated. Da Gama says employees often face redundancy because they lack awareness of company developments, fail to ask questions, and lack curiosity. 

“You need to either be proactive and turn the impending change into something more enjoyable and fulfilling or sit in fear of the inevitable.”


While workplace trends are hard to measure, career cushioning can directly affect employers. 

“The impact of career cushioning on employers could be catastrophic. They could lose good skilled workers to the competition and not be able to deliver on their brand promise. After all, without enough human resources — even with AI — businesses will find it hard to survive,” says Da Gama. 

Employers can use a leaf from career cushioning to improve attrition rates. “Retention is easier and more cost-effective than recruitment, but also leads to a more productive and motivated workforce,” says Farrugia. 

Companies known for their commitment to helping employees upskill are more attractive to top talent in the industry. 

“While highly skilled and adaptable individuals are valuable assets, continuous improvement is key in today’s dynamic job market.  From an employer’s perspective, trust is paramount. Investing in employees who demonstrate commitment fosters a strong two-way relationship,” says Farrugia. 

Employees who feel valued and supported are more likely to stay with the company long-term, reducing turnover rates and retaining valuable talent.

“Benchmarking salaries and opportunities is crucial for both employers and employees. Employers need to stay competitive in attracting top talent, while employees can use this information to ensure they are fairly compensated and have access to growth opportunities,” adds Farrugia.

Companies that promote work-life balance, provide resources for stress management, and prioritize mental health initiatives are more attractive to job seekers. “New generations prioritize work-life purpose over simply achieving balance. If they don’t find meaning and growth in their current role, they may be more willing to seek new opportunities, even if it means a temporary adjustment period. This puts the onus on employers to create engaging and stimulating work environments that foster continuous learning and development,” adds Farrugia. 

Embracing workplace trends requires organizations to adapt their policies, practices, and culture to meet the evolving needs and expectations of the workforce.

“The future of work is changing, and companies must come and stay on board. As more individuals seek greater control over their career trajectories, employers need to adapt and formalize their remote and hybrid working models, for example, to accommodate the overarching workforce preferences and attract and retain top talent,” says Timms. 

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Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More

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