Coping with unemployment

Unemployment may cause a deterioration of economic situation, downgrading of social status, broken social relations, changed risk behaviors, impaired psychological well-being, and depression, consequences that may develop into severe illness.

— Dr. Margaretha Voss, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, in a report in the December 2004 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

There’s an enormous difference between quitting a job and getting laid off or fired.

If you quit a job, you’ve most likely done it because you’ve already got a better gig lined up. You give your two weeks’ (or longer) notice. Your coworkers give you a going-away party; there’s gifts and congratulations and happy goodbyes. You leave your last day of work like a hero riding off into the sunset.

You feel exhilarated; liberated.

If you’re laid off or fired, it’s another story entirely. Sometimes it totally blindsides you. You think you’re safe, that you’ve been doing a good job, until the day the boss asks to see you in his or her office.

But sometimes you see it coming from a long way off. The company’s been shedding employees like a St. Bernard shedding hair in July. You’ve been living under the cloud of doom so long that you just want it to be over.

You think it will be a relief to finally get fired. But it isn’t. You get taken into your managers’ office. A security guard is there. You’re given the news, and then just an hour or so to pack your belongings into cardboard boxes. The guard escorts you back to your cube; your coworkers are conveniently at lunch, or in a meeting. You’re treated like a criminal as they hustle you out, afraid of an angry outburst, afraid your tears will rot the morale of the failing company.

You feel small and weak and betrayed. You feel like a failure.

If you’re not angry after having been laid off … just give it a little while. The objective viewpoint of “Well, the company did what it had to do” melts into rage after the first few months of applying for jobs, any job, only to be rejected again and again. You’re going to run through a maddening cycle of emotions as you apply for positions: hope, dismay, frustration, rage, depression, numb defeat. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Many people in today’s depressed economy have become what the U.S. Department of Labor quaintly refers to as “long-term unemployed”. Those who haven’t had work for more than six months are much more common in recent years than in the economic downturn of the early 1990s.

Here are a few things to keep in mind in the unhappy event you should join the ranks:

  • Apply for unemployment compensation as soon as you can — I waited four months before I applied, and I really could have used the money during that time. It’s easy to convince yourself at first that you don’t need to apply, thinking, “I’m experienced! I’ve got degrees! I’ll find work soon!” Yes, you could be lucky and get rehired quickly, but in the current market, it could be many months before you find something. A few weeks on unemployment money doesn’t hurt anything; in most cases the funds come from taxes paid by the company that laid you off, so you’re not taking the money away from anyone who needs it worse than you do. The only good reason to wait is if you’ve gotten a decent severance package; apply the last week your employers’ benefits will run out.
  • Know that your friendships will change — If you’ve been at a company for a while, you likely have “work friends”. Some of these people may have seemingly turned into “real” friends. Be aware that a lot of these people will be awfully scarce if you get fired. Many people don’t know to expect this, and the additional pain of feeling shunned by people you thought cared about you can make the post-layoff depression all the worse. Sometimes you do indeed discover work friends’ bonhomie was just an ingratiating facade. But sometimes, they truly did like you … but they’re scared. Scared that if their boss finds out they’ve been fraternizing with a fired employee, they might be next. Scared that your bad luck will rub off on them.

    But sometimes, you’ll forge new friendships through commiserating with other firees. Take advantage of bitch sessions and post-layoff get-togethers; it helps to vent, and you never know who you’ll click with.

  • Know that some people won’t understand your situation — In fact, some people won’t be willing to understand what you’re going through. Employed friends are perfectly willing to go into denial about how bad the job market really is. Thus, your lack of success in finding employment must be some flaw in you rather than a sign of a truly awful economy.

    Parents will be confused as to why their bright young son or daughter can’t find work. Surely they haven’t raised a slacker? You’ll find yourself repeating the same explanations over and over until you’re hoarse: Yes, ma, I applied at ____. I tried ____. Yes, I bought a new suit. Yes, I called the agency back. No, I haven’t found anything yet. Yes, I am really, really trying. People just won’t get it until they’re in your position; try not to take their disbelief personally.

  • Find a positive outlet for your anger and frustration — Work out. Write. Photoshop your former boss’ face. Beat on a punching bag. Whatever you do, find a way to channel the bad feelings you’re going to have, because they can build up and do terrible damage to you and the people around you if you don’t. You don’t want to lose a spouse, lover or a roommate because you’ve turned cranky and bitter (or depressed and withdrawn), and you don’t want to find yourself losing your temper during a job interview.
  • Keep busy, and keep focused — It’s easy for your life to totally lose structure during an extended stretch of unemployment. How many of us would get up in the morning if we don’t have to? It’s too easy to stay up all night watching bad TV and sleeping ’til mid-afternoon. Falling into that kind of schedule makes it hard to be sharp for interviews. So create your own structure; if you don’t find a job, find some kind of interesting volunteer work. Consider going back to college, if you can afford it. Keep your mind and body in shape.
  • Take care of yourself — Heed Dr. Voss’ warning. Her study in Sweden of over 20,000 twins has shown that, compared with consistently-employed twins, twins who have suffered unemployment are more likely to die in the 10 to 24 years following their layoff or firing. What do they die from? Suicide, mostly, particularly the women. The men die from accidents, some of which could be hidden suicide. There was also an overall increase in health problems in the unemployed, particularly problems related to alcohol abuse.
  • Take advantage of employment counseling — Sometimes you’ll be offered services at an employment agency as part of your severance; sometimes these services seem pretty lame. But if you’ve been out of the market for a while, you will need help getting your resume and such in order. At the very least, do some research online and ask friends to look over your resume and test you on interview questions.
  • Re-evaluate your employment goals — The market’s still tight; we can’t be as choosy as we could be seven years ago. Are you applying for all the jobs you could potentially do? Do you need more training? Are you making sure that desperation isn’t driving you to apply for inappropriate work that will make you miserable?

Most important, keep looking and applying for work, every day. Don’t give up. Unemployment sucks, but if you perservere, it’s only temporary.

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