Coping With Unemployment

The recent spate of layoffs in B.C.’s civil service is the latest example of what has been going on in much of North America’s private sector for almost two years as industry and government struggle to cut back.

While headlines tell of job losses in the thousands, being unemployed is a highly personal experience. And it can be a gut-wrenching emotional roller coaster, say Norman Amundson and William Borgen, professors of counselling psychology at the University of B.C.

They say that experiencing unemployment involves many of the same emotions that accompany grieving, especially immediately following a job loss. There are the initial and common feelings of shock and anger, a sense of “how can this be happening to me?”

A short grieving period follows, characterized by denial, anger, bargaining and depression. Then comes acceptance of the job loss and the preparation for a job search. Job seekers can show the common symptoms of burn-out at this point, including initial enthusiasm for the job hunt followed by frustration and apathy.

If the job loss was anticipated, as in B.C.’s civil-service ranks, those affected may feel relief. A few may look forward to taking time off following a layoff before beginning to look for another job. This time is often used as a period of reflection and taking stock.

However, these initial feelings can soon give way to worry and anxiety as the reality of the situation sinks in. This is the point when concerns about the future become intense. The phase is often an extreme low point.

Yet fears for the future tend to lessen with time as the unemployed person develops a sense of determination to find a job. At that point, he or she may feel back in control again. This is a critical point because it is usually the stage when people begin to make efforts to get another job.

With a mixture of determination, hope and optimism, the search begins. This is a high point. It’s characterized by energetic activity such as resume- building and networking. The person may feel increased confidence.

Yet despite the newfound confidence that one is now pouring into the search, there can be a downside. There is relentless self-appraisal, questions of one’s strengths and weaknesses. This can cause stress. Feelings of pressure and desperation are common at this point in the job-search process.

Inevitable job rejections add to these feelings and may cause some to give up the hunt for employment. But in our experience, our clients do emerge from these doldrums and continue their search. How?

We’ve described some of the very natural emotions that accompany unemployment. How do you cope with them so that you are strong enough to keep pounding the pavement or emailing out that resume?

We suggest 11 techniques based on Amundson and Borgen’s research to deal with these emotional ups and downs, maintain commitment to a job search and ultimately make unemployment a thing of the past:

  1. Family support: Turn to family to bolster flagging spirits and find security, encouragement and stability.
  2. Friendship: Make sure to seek the ear of friends who truly care and perhaps have lived through unemployment themselves. But try to vary your conversation to include topics unrelated to your job search.
  3. Positive Thinking: Don’t be a Pollyanna and deny reality (e.g.,”there are loads of jobs waiting for me out there!”). In fact, accepting that economic and political factors are often outside our control can be a relief, reassuring you that your jobless state is not your fault. Focus on what you can control. You can’t give yourself the job but you can control how well you conduct your job hunt. Separating self-worth from obtaining paid employment is a difficult but important goal. Do your best during your search to build confidence.
  4. Career change: Consider a change in direction or obtain retraining. This may address both personal and vocational fulfillment. Check whether governments pay for retraining programs.
  5. Temporary work: Obtaining a short-term job can be pivotal in surviving a protracted economic downturn. If the job is beneath your skills and experience, remind yourself the contract is temporary. On the other hand, don’t hope in vain that a temporary job you truly like will become permanent. That can set you up for disappointment.
  6. Job-search support: Support groups, counseling or job-seeking skills training help keep energy up for the job search.
  7. Networking: Keep contact with people, be up front about your job search and make job contacts, even if they appear to be a long shot.
  8. Avoid drug and alcohol abuse.
  9. Avoid negative people: Keep away from people who leave you feeling inadequate, pressured, drained or embarrassed because of your joblessness.
  10. Physical exercise: Exercise during your job search. It’s a proven stress reducer. Stay away from the TV set too.
  11. Seek spiritual outlets: Believing in a larger purpose or appealing to one’s faith or spiritual beliefs can help comfort job seekers.

Looking for employment is a job itself. In fact it can be the most difficult and stressful work a person can undertake. Surviving unemployment by combining tactics that are emotionally healthy, along with a methodical approach to the search, can and will get you through it.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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