For most of us, work lies somewhere between a calling and a necessary evil. But, what if the job is suddenly gone and stays gone for 18 months or more? Long-term unemployment is harrowing, but with some know-how, even this storm can be traversed successfully.
The Hard News
Beyond a paycheck, meaningful work is psychologically help-enhancing. Work provides daily structure and creates an important sense of identity. Lose a job, and things become difficult quickly. James Opon, career services director at National-Louis University, likens the reactions of the long-term unemployed to those of persons grieving a death. The unemployed, says Opon, go through denial, bargaining, anger and, finally, “the depression stage hits when they really start feeling bad and begin questioning their worth” (Medill Reports, 2010).
“I’m struck by the breadth and depth of the psychological impact,” adds Dr. Carl Van Horn, who coauthored a 2009 study entitled “The Anguish of Unemployment.” “People think of [being unemployed] as their fault…This is…not like getting a cold, it’s like recovering from a major illness” (CityTownInfo.com, September 2009).
Psychological research shows that the ill effects of long-term unemployment are threefold. First, the job-seeker is likely to become emotionally weary from attempts at re-employment. This is especially true for older Americans who are out of work. As one 66-year-old former office manager described it, the process of seeking new employment is “extremely draining” and makes one feel like “less of a human being.” The sense of shame and self-blame that results can lead to social isolation, ill health, and, for some, divorce.
Secondly, not only does the formerly employed person suffer, but his or her spouse suffers when unemployment is lengthened. Research has found that shame, isolation and ill health also affect partners of those who have been unemployed for many months. Spouses, often female, try to manage on lower incomes, support their partners and deal with family conflict.
Finally, the children of the long-term unemployed suffer as well. Children of unemployed fathers experience greater amounts of depression, loneliness, distrust, lowered expectations, poor school performance and somatic complaints than do their peers whose parents are employed.
Riding Out the Storm
There are indications that the most difficult impacts of long-term unemployment can be decreased by careful navigation of these turbulent waters. There are three distinct periods of stress involved with job loss. The first two of these can be managed in ways that make the longer-term less of a strain. The initial period of stress occurs while people are still employed, but fear that they may lose their job. Isaac Galatzer-Levy, a researcher at the New York University School of Medicine, found that “people are more stressed out when they fear losing their jobs than they are when they actually get laid off” (Mlive.com, December 2010). During this high-worry period, anxiety, depression and sleep problems are rampant. If untreated, these constitute the first wave of ill effects that pull people down further when they become unemployed.
Thus, if you are in the “employed-but-worried” category, take action now. Reduce debt and spending, and stick to your plan. Further, if worry about possible job loss is creating symptoms such as depression or sleep difficulties, get professional help. If you do lose your job, you will be ready to swing into action after a brief recovery period.
When a job is lost, many people—nearly half, according to psychologist Dr. David Fryer—suffer psychological distress. This is normal. If the pink slip comes, expect to go through a down cycle and, for the first month or two, reduce social demands, get support, balance your diet, get exercise and rest.
Now, here is the golden nugget. Galatzer-Levy and his colleagues discovered that, after an initial decline following job loss, life satisfaction levels returned to where they had been the previous year for 69 percent of the sample—whether or not they had found a job. This means that if you are a reasonably satisfied person before you lose your job, you can employ skills to help yourself rise to the surface again, even after the dousing of job loss. The key is to give yourself time to recover from the initial shock and ensuing down-cycle, and then get busy with the following:
- Keep approximately the same schedule you had while working. You can sleep in later if desired, but by 8 or 9am, be dressed for the day and get active. This schedule will keep mood and energy stable.
- Refuse to become isolated. Keep trusted others involved in your life. The book Take This Job and Love It by Jaffers and Scott cites the example of one man who created “a personal board of directors” made up of his pastor, former supervisors and graduate school professors. Some of these people encouraged him, others challenged him professionally and still others looked for employment for him. He was re-employed, with a better job, in 14 months.
- Learn new things about your field. One unemployed woman asked herself, “What keeps [the people in my field who still have jobs] awake at night?” She sought answers through interviews and in trade journals. When she reapplied for work, she offered descriptions of these problems and of corrective actions she would take in the first 180 days of employment. She was hired after two interviews.
- Look for new horizons outside your former field. Locally, during the 1980 recession, a successful painting company was started when an entrepreneur noticed that people would pay a small fee to have their house address number stenciled on the curb. Nationally, both Walt Disney Enterprises and Hewlett-Packard opened for business during the Great Depression.
- Keep the faith, and let the faith keep you. Research indicates that a major basis for resiliency in hard times includes abilities to find meaning in hardship, to maintain faith in one’s skills, to stay connected with others and to sustain hope. iBi
Dr. Steven A. Hamon is a co-founder and president of The Antioch Group, which provides counseling and mental health services for issues ranging from depression and anxiety to autism, eating disorders, drug abuse and marriage counseling.