As a UN Career Development Coach, I have spoken to UN staff who have faced numerous challenges. Here are just some of the most common issues in the field and in headquarters.
Lack of career progression and feeling stuck
Advancement within the UN system can be slow, and many staff members experience frustration due to limited career progression opportunities. Bureaucracy, budget constraints, and the need for equitable opportunities for staff can hinder promotions and career development.
Geographic representation can also interfere with the career development of UN staff coming from equitably or overrepresented countries. Internal power games and favoritism are unfortunately also present; managers misusing their power to promote their own interests while helping certain colleagues with their careers is a reality that can’t be ignored.
A lot of UN staff find themselves stuck in their careers. The question is often whether to keep going or to make a change. Being stuck is something many people experience in their careers. It doesn’t always mean you’ve hit a dead end, it might just mean you’re slowing down. I recommend reassessing whether you’re making progress toward your goals and what your plan would be if you decide to make a change.
For example, a UN staff member with over 20 years of non-UN experience had joined the organization in a headquarter location, but felt her P-3 position was too junior, so after a short time she moved on to another organization on a field position at the same grade, which she also felt very junior. She was unsure about her next career move until we clarified her career goals and enhanced her CV, acknowledging that she was better suited for a P-4 level position. With this clarity, we identified suitable P-4 vacancies aligned with her profile and interests and tailored her applications accordingly.
Switching roles and organizations after short periods presents certain challenges. While it is natural for professionals to seek new opportunities, in particular if the job is not the right fit, frequent changes can raise red flags. It is recommended in such cases to emphasize that different experiences are an asset, focusing on the achievements and transferable skills.
This is a constraint for many UN staff, although it is often promoted in the UN, and in some instances even required for promotion (for P-5 and above grades).
Relocating periodically, sometimes to remote or unstable areas is not something everyone is willing to do for the sake of career progression. Mobility can disrupt personal lives, strain family relationships, and create challenges in maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Some people do like this part of the UN career, as it brings a diverse experience, getting to know different cultures and a chance to travel the world, but for others the fear of it is a constant worry about relocation and securing places in new schools for their children.
Different UN organizations have varying rules about how strictly they enforce staff mobility. One UN employee who had worked for one organization for over 12 years in different locations, sought assistance with interview preparation. She was applying for a position at the same level in a different UN organization.
Her main reason for seeking this change was personal, as she didn’t want to move back to a field assignment. She got the job and was transferred to the new position. This inter-agency mobility is a good option not only to avoid the mandatory relocation, but also to gain new knowledge and significantly enrich one’s career.
The emotional toll of working in crisis and conflict zones is significant due to the hardships of the location. Burnout among UN staff in headquarters or different locations however, poses significant yet different challenges. While these staff members may not face the same physical dangers as those deployed to conflict zones, they encounter their own set of stressors and burnout triggers. I have met just as many overstressed UN staff members in the field as in headquarters. We all know how important it is to maintain a healthy work-life balance, but we don’t always apply this knowledge. Managers could also do more to recognize the need for this and to actively promote it in the workplace.
I can’t resist sharing some of my own experiences here as I have vivid memories of my time working in South Sudan as a UN Volunteer, within the high-pressure environment of a senior executive’s office, where work often extended to 10-12 hours per day. There was an unspoken rule that everyone should bring their own lunch and eat at their desks. But I soon realized that I needed a break, a moment to step away from the rat race. I chose to go outside for lunch despite initial disapproval from colleagues. To my surprise, what started as a small rebellion, eventually led to a subtle shift in the office culture. Colleagues began to question the wisdom of their dedication to this workplace practice. Soon enough, the lunch break became a shared escape from the daily grind. Sometimes little things make a big difference in reducing the risk of burnout.
In another assignment in a difficult location, the stressful environment clearly affected my mental state. I turned to running. Once the first painful, out-of-breath sessions were behind, that practice provided not just physical relief but also a mental escape from the demands of the job. Daily meditation sessions also prove very helpful in grounding myself in the present moment and finding inner peace.
These experiences taught me a crucial lesson: we must prioritize our own mental well-being to prevent burnout. It’s imperative that we recognize when the pressures of our work threaten to overwhelm us and take proactive steps to safeguard our mental health. Whether it’s a simple break for lunch, engaging in physical activity, or seeking professional help, we owe it to ourselves to preserve our mental health in the face of relentless demands.
How can you influence your UN career?
Everyone should ideally be presented with their potential career path upon joining the UN, although it hardly ever happens. Such a discussion could create a better understanding of what to expect, and would help to define realistic goals. Consider pursuing additional education or training to meet the qualifications for your target role. Multilingualism is highly valued, therefore keep improving your language skills, particularly in official UN languages. Build a strong professional network within the UN system, and also make connections outside the UN system.
Successful leaders have a professional network they can tap into not only for career advancement purposes. A wide professional network inside and outside the UN system enhances one’s ability to fulfill the organization’s mission, but it also provides access to resources, expertise, and opportunities that can drive innovation and collaboration. Building and nurturing such a network is an investment in both personal and organizational success.
Keep monitoring UN job vacancies regularly; don’t wait to be bored in your position to apply to new positions that align with your qualifications and career goals. Tailor your application to each job, and prepare for assessments and interviews.
If you encounter setbacks in your UN career journey, don’t be discouraged. Seek feedback from UN recruiters, HR colleagues and mentors to help you identify areas for improvement.
During a UN career, numerous challenges may arise. However, by demonstrating perseverance, patience, a commitment to both the UN’s mission and our individual aspirations, and seeking external support when necessary, we can overcome these challenges and benefit from a career which is personally fulfilling and where we can make a difference on a global scale.