How to cope with the emotional toll of losing your job

How to cope with the emotional toll of losing your job

For the more than 33.5 million Americans who’ve filed for unemployment since mid-March, the stress of living during the pandemic includes dealing with the additional stress of job loss.

Even in the most normal of circumstances, “involuntary job loss is one of the most stressful events on the scale of stressful life events,” says Monique Valcour, an executive coach, keynote speaker and management professor. With millions of people out of work and paths to economic recovery unclear, job seekers also have to grapple with the fact that it could be months before they are able to consider looking for work again.

This uncertainty, coupled with anxiety about staying safe during a global pandemic, can take a serious emotional toll.

Why job loss feels so personal

Austin-based therapist Melody Li says she began hearing from clients in mid-March about how the pandemic was impacting their personal lives. By April, several were experiencing job loss.

For many, losing a job is personal, even if it’s an experience millions of Americans are going through at the same time.

“We live in a society and culture where much of our identity and sense of worth is defined by the work we do,” Li, who is the founder of the Inclusive Therapists community, tells CNBC Make It. “When it comes to losing a job, it’s so much more than losing the income. It also means losing a routine, a sense of regularity, relationships we’ve formed and feeling, ‘if I’m not doing this job and providing for my family, what is my purpose?'”

Because of this connection between self-worth and work, it’s common for people who’ve lost their jobs to blame themselves and wonder what they personally did wrong to end up unemployed. They may also feel shame for not being able to provide financial stability and protection to the people they need to support, especially during a health crisis.

“But what’s happening now is out of our control,” Li says. “It’s not a reflection of the resilience, strength or skills we have.”

Working through the immediate crisis

Experts agree the first thing to remember after losing a job is to take care of yourself physically and mentally.

That means getting adequate sleep, maintaining your usual meal routine, staying physically active and protecting your mental health regarding both the news and your own personal experience of the pandemic.

Also notice how you’re immediately responding to job loss. Li says people will often react in one of three ways: fight (such as overworking to find a new job), flight (such as seeking distraction) or freeze (such as feeling hopeless and paralyzed).

Once you identify your response type, it may be worth reflecting what about your personal history is causing you to react in a certain way, Li says. For example, do you feel the need to shoulder the stress of your job loss alone because it’s how a parent handled it in the past? Or was job security prized within your family growing up, and now you’re questioning your self-worth without it?

Recognize the root causes driving your stress so you can take control of and work through the situation, Li says. For example, if you saw how hard it was for a parent to deal with job loss alone and find yourself doing the same thing, recognizing those patterns can help you make clearer, more empowered decisions for yourself. It can also be helpful to remember that, while you may have seen loved ones struggle in the past, they were able to work through difficult situations, and you can, too.

Focus on what you can control

Valcour says it can be beneficial to remind yourself of what you do have control over in the aftermath of losing a job.

While you may no longer have control over your income, for example, you do have control over your budget. Figure out what you need to do in the short-term to make sure you’re able to cover your housing, food, bills, health and other essential needs at this time. Know who to contact to ease financial stress. Also get familiar with the process of filing for unemployment.

“What’s in your control is your mental framing,” Valcour says. “Take nothing as unchangeable.”

Just as it’s important to give yourself time to process the news, it’s also crucial to make sure you don’t spend too much time dwelling to the point that it becomes an unhealthy habit. One practice Li recommends to clients is to set aside time every day to think through three ideas: what’s worrying you, what you’re grateful for and what problem you can actively work to solve. Give yourself a time limit, say 5 minutes for each idea, to think through them, write down your thoughts or talk about them with a friend. Then, you can begin to solve a problem that’s actually solvable.

Also think of how you can take control in your personal life, such as by prioritizing relationships and spending quality time with loved ones. By focusing on what you can control, you can both lower your anxiety and tap into your ability to be resourceful.

Reach out to the right people

With so many people going through personal challenges, Li says individuals may worry about burdening others with their own problems during the pandemic. But weathering these tough circumstances alone can make the stress even worse, particularly when social distancing is leading to many people feeling isolated and unable to get in touch with their support network.

One way to make it easier to connect with others is to preface your conversation and set a time limit. For example, maybe you text a friend that you need 15 minutes to talk about how you’re feeling after being laid off from your company. This will give the other person space to determine if they’re in a good place to be supportive.

Make sure to reciprocate the offer, Li says: “If we’re in a collaborative relationship and we’re offering support to each other, it doesn’t feel like a burden anymore.”

Take the same approach when tapping your professional network, Valcour adds. Instead of feeling like you’re only reaching out for help, view networking as connecting with others in your industry over a shared interest. Maybe you’re not comfortable asking a contact if their company is hiring, but you’re interested in having a conversation about what the future of your industry could look like. In any case, when you open up about losing your job, “people will tend to respond with advice or potential leads,” Valcour says. “Moreover, you’re able to take some action on behalf of yourself in a really positive way.”

Sometimes, it can be helpful to bring in a neutral third party, such as a therapist, to talk through personal challenges. Li says that many providers, such as herself and many in the Inclusive Therapists network, are offering teletherapy at reduced rates. And because the pandemic is impacting certain communities at disproportionate rates, a therapist who is familiar with that nuance may be able to better guide you through your personal experience.

Look ahead

There may come a point in time where it’s helpful to think about the long-term, Valcour says.

“Think about this opportunity as a time to think more about what you want in the next phase of your life,” she says. “For so many people looking back at the trajectory of their lives and their most difficult experiences, many people will identify those experiences as containing the seeds of growth. It’s not hugely comforting when you’re in the middle of a personal as well as a global crisis, but it’s true and there’s work around post-traumatic growth.” 

When you’ve worked through making sure you can handle the immediate impact of losing your job, you may be able to take a step back and reconsider what you want from the next phase in your career.

“It’s easy, when you’re doing one job for a while, to think that’s the only thing you’re qualified to do and there’s no way to convince someone in another field to hire you,” Valcour says. “A key skill to practice will be seeing what transferable skills they have and how to demonstrate those skills and the contribution they’ll be able to make with an organization.” 

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