Surviving Job Loss

As the global economy sinks further and faster into a recession – with some predictions of a possible Depression, organizations the world over are issuing layoff notices with alarming frequency and speed, Canada and B.C. included.

The financial and emotional toll that job losses entail is vast. Handling the emotional pain caused by losing one’s job is exceedingly difficult. Anger, sadness, fear and a sense of betrayal can be overwhelming.

Losing one’s livelihood, even temporarily, can feel like a death, and in fact, many who suffer a job loss go through many of the same stages associated with grieving—shock, denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. In our current climate of unprecedented uncertainty, fear is another huge emotion.

People experience these stages differently, but in general, everyone goes through some version of the process. Here are some stages the laid-off person will likely experience:

1. Shock

At first, losing one’s job feels like a shock. A sense of numbness and disbelief may occur, even if there was prior warning–news of a recession, a reduction of hours worked, talk of bailouts, as in the auto industry, or pay cuts Many don’t seem to react at all in this phase and carry on as if nothing has happened. Colleagues may think that the news has had no impact on those laid off. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The laid-off employee is actually overwhelmed by the news and has shut down simply in order to cope.

2. Denial

Once the shock of the news has worn off, the employee sinks into denial. A sense that this can’t be happening pervades the worker’s thinking. When in shock, people don’t seem to think. The numbness is pervasive. But once denial kicks in, many find themselves unable to believe the news and consider the whole thing might be a big a mistake. They may re-check their dismissal letter, talk to the boss for clarification or consider the situation temporary. This sense of bewilderment and incredulity is hard to shake. People push the fact away emotionally so it doesn’t intrude on their previously held belief that their job was secure. While some may not have particularly liked their job, found it boring and were looking for something else, never for a minute did they think they would lose it.

3. Anger

This is a common part of any loss. In a job loss, there are intense feelings of betrayal and a lack of appreciation by the employer, especially if the employee has been on the job a long time and feels himself a loyal part of the organization.

People who have lost their job feel angry that their reputations may have been besmirched, or that people in their social circle – or even family members – may steer clear of them or think differently about them. After all, “what we do” and “who we are” in western culture are tightly intertwined. Family members may feel disappointed in the laid-off person.

Being laid off in a recession is an economic calamity over which individual workers have no control. Yet job loss feels intensely personal. Most of us associate staying employed with the effort we put in, the caliber of work we do and our productivity and performance. When an event outside our control causes us to lose our jobs we tend to take it personally even though we had no say in the matter. Anger results from this sense of powerlessness over our own destinies.

4. Bargaining and Depression

Many find themselves arguing about the job loss. It’s as if by arguing, negotiating or coming up with reasons why they shouldn’t lose their position, they’ll get their job back. Common themes include, “But I was a long term employee – how can the lay me off?” or, “I have lots of bills to pay!” Other rationalizations include the argument an employee does good work, is valuable to the company or has just started and hasn’t even had the chance to prove herself. By bargaining, workers hope to change the decision or alter the course of events that led to the lay off. Sometimes they’ll note that the recession won’t last long and the employer will need them again. But the bargaining is in vein when layoffs are due to economic reasons and the decision is inevitable. Workers can also sink into a depression marked by a sense of hopelessness and helplessness regarding the job loss. When bargaining proves unsuccessful sadness results and many may find themselves weathering bouts of listlessness, a lack of energy and difficulty envisioning a positive future.

5. Fear and Panic

Fear plays a huge role in a job loss, particularly in today’s climate where mostly every asset people own, from their home to their retirement nest egg – has been declining almost daily in value. Everyone is experiencing those feelings of fear over their declining net worth. But for the individual who has lost a job, that fear is compounded by the immediate anxieties such as how they are going to pay the next credit-card bill, the hydro, the mortgage or the rent. There is also long-term fear of where they will find work in an economy where everyone seems to be retrenching and downsizing or even going out of business.

6. Acceptance

As workers cycle in and out of the stages of grieving a job loss, they begin to accept the news and prepare to move on. It becomes a bit easier to see that the job loss was not their fault and they could do little about it. It helps to feel less alone when they realize that there are so many others in the same situation, as is the case with the current economic crisis. The anger begins to subside, the person disconnects the job loss from her sense of self esteem and starts to accept the change. Resentment subsides. Once this happens, people start to think about what to do next. This kind of thinking is different from the sense of panic that arises when angry or scared. Workers begin to think about their next move in terms of what is best for them, what work they can do, and what they need to get through the difficult economic times. A sense of hope may even occur as the worker begins to plan for the future. That is where the real resolution begins.

Losing one’s job is one of the most difficult life transitions. The challenge for the person who has lost his or her job is to appreciate that a process of loss and grief accompanies the layoff. This process varies for each individual and does not follow a specific order, but in the end, a loss is loss and grieving it is a healthy process that they must experience.

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 sunmail@newmangrigg.com

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

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