How to Navigate the Emotional Rollercoaster of Unemployment—and Thrive

The role of the workplace in employee health and well-being

Gregg Taylor, MA, RCC, CCDP

Reprinted from "Workplace: Transitions" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 11 (3), pp. 28-30

There are many reasons that people may find themselves suddenly unemployed. People are laid off as their company downsizes or shuts down, they quit a poor job in frustration, they are fired with or without cause, or perhaps they simply come to the end of a contract or are making the transition from school to work. Whatever the cause, being unemployed can be a very stressful time—a period that can affect someone’s outlook, self-esteem, and emotional balance and well-being.

One research review looking at how unemployment affects mental health found that people who were unemployed experienced psychological problems at twice the rate of those who were employed (34% versus 16%); unemployment was a direct cause of distress.1 Other studies have found that unemployment is a significant risk factor for the development of substance abuse problems and that it increases the risk of relapse for those in recovery.2

Having delivered group and individual career transitions programs for thousands of unemployed clients, I have witnessed first-hand the strength and resilience that people display when they face adversity, and how a job or career change can lead to new and better opportunities. At the same time, however, I have also seen how hard it can be to keep hope alive and to maintain a positive outlook throughout the period of unemployment, especially if it seems to go on longer than expected.

If you are currently unemployed or are supporting and encouraging someone who is, then I encourage you to consider the following ideas and helpful strategies.

Change vs. Transition

Author and speaker Charles Swindoll once said, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.”3 This statement points to the difference between change and transition. Change is the event that takes place at a specific moment in time—what happens to me. Change is the loss of my job, my move to a new city, or my return to school. Transition is the personal, emotional process I go through as I deal with the change event—how I react to it. It’s the (sometimes slow) process of coming to terms with the loss, figuring out what to do next, and stepping out, making new choices and taking new actions. Being mindful of how we are reacting to a change and how the transition is affecting our emotions and mental health can be crucial to maintaining our well-being during unemployment.

The Transition Process

I find it useful to put the experience of unemployment into a framework that helps normalize the experience and sets out a way forward. In his classic book Managing Transitions author William Bridges describes what he calls the “transition process.”4 The transition process helps explain the emotional experiences we have along the way and provides a framework for moving ourselves through the transitional period in a healthy way. Transition occurs in three distinct stages:

1. Endings

The loss of a job can be an emotional experience. It is quite normal to have strong reactions to the news. The less warning we have, and the more we feel we depend on our job for our income and well-being, the stronger our reaction will be. In this first stage, we have our initial emotional reactions to the news of the loss of our job. We must also begin to disengage from the old ways of doing things, letting go of our connection to that workplace and to our colleagues and to who we were in that situation. This can bring up deep feelings of loss, a desire for closure, and the need to say good-bye.

You may experience:

  • The grieving process: denial, shock, anger, bargaining, sadness, depression, acceptance

  • A mix of excitement and worry

Healthy self-care includes:

  • Acknowledging the change—recognizing what you will lose or miss, letting go of the past, allowing yourself some down time to rest, maintaining or beginning an exercise routine, and eating well and addressing any health concerns

  • Continuing to connect with the outside world—maintaining connections with friends and family, seeing a counsellor who can help you work through any strong feelings you are having and help to build your confidence and self-esteem

2. Neutral zone

During the second stage of transition, we find ourselves in a confusing in-between state: we are not who and where we were, but we are also not yet who and where we are going to be. This can be a period of both chaos and creativity, a time to evaluate the past and plan for the future.

You may experience:

  • Introspection, a sense of renewal, anxiety, confusion, a feeling of being “stuck,” hope and/or enthusiasm

Healthy self-care includes:

  • Staying connected to others—within your current personal and professional networks as well as in new networks available to you through local professional and business associations and other groups (in person, or online with LinkedIn or Meetup.com)

  • Seeking out help as you explore career options—by hiring a career coach or accessing free community-based services and workshops through your local WorkBC Centre (www.workbc.ca)

  • Evaluating and exploring your options, researching career and job opportunities

  • Keeping a daily gratitude list of the people and things that support you as you make this transition

  • Creating a weekly “work” schedule to structure your time

  • Scheduling time for learning (with free training programs online, for example, such as those on YouTube), exploring and researching careers, meeting with friends and mentors

  • Doing some of your research work outside of the house—a local library, a coffee shop, a business resource centre or a shared workspace

3. New beginning

We enter the third stage of transition as we grow familiar with and accept the new reality that change brings. We start to feel “with it” again, begin a new chapter, enter into a time of renewal, and connect with new employment options, networking, jobs and opportunities.

You may experience:

  • Happiness, fear, excitement, anxiety, increased energy and hopefulness

This is the time for:

  • Moving forward, taking risks, making contacts, saying “yes” to new opportunities

Healthy self-care includes:

  • Pacing yourself, building rest and mindfulness into your new schedule, writing down your successes and acknowledging the efforts that have got you here

  • Sending out thank-you cards to anyone who helped you through the endings and neutral zone stages of your transition or who provided contacts and leads that turned into a “new beginning”

When change occurs in either our work life or our personal life, we may be tempted to ignore our feelings about how the change has affected us, causing us to quickly jump into the first opportunity that comes along (a job or relationship, for example). If we do this, we may miss a real opportunity—an opportunity to explore how the change has affected us and to assess carefully and intentionally what we want, and what new options and opportunities may be opening up. And remember: while we all want our progress through this life transition to get better every day, there will be days when we will slip back into the emotions of the endings stage or the uncertainty of the neutral zone. So be patient with yourself, and know that you are on a journey that will include twists and turns, successes and challenges—all of which are part of the transition on the way to your next opportunity.

 
About the author

Gregg is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Certified Career Development Practitioner who provides counselling services through his private practice (www.greggtaylor.ca) and workplace mental health services as a workplace consultant with FSEAP (www.fseap.bc.ca). His passion and purpose is to help people thrive through the challenges and transitions of life and career

Footnotes:
  1. Paul, K.M. & Moser, K. (2009). Unemployment impairs mental health: Meta-analyses. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 74(3):264-282. *Note: The unemployed sample contained no individuals not normally included in the labour force (retired, disabled, students, homemakers, etc.).

  2. Henkel, D. (2011). Unemployment and substance use: A review of the literature (1990-2010). Current Drug Abuse Review, 4(1):4-27.

  3. See Charles Swindoll quotes at www.goodreads.com.

  4. Bridges, W. (1991). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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