Unrenewed probation periods, collective layoffs, redundancy plans: the Covid-19 crisis has caused a wave of panic, leaving many people unemployed overnight. The OECD forecast is bleak, predicting that the UK economy will shrink by 11.5% this year, making it the worst hit of all developed countries. In fact, the deterioration of the labour market could well keep going and the unemployment rate could rise to at least 9%. You may be personally affected as you prepare to leave a job, uncertain as to what the future holds. These situations are really trying, and you may wonder how to move on… so how do you grieve for a job?
The loss of a job is an experience Alix Gautier, a clinical psychologist, knows well. As a consultant at Transitions Plus, she provides support to executives who go through this ordeal. The company, which specialises in career crisis management for executives, helps those who are going through difficult professional transitions to bounce back. She sheds some light on how we experience these pivotal moments in our careers.
Loss of employment: why is it called grieving?
The loss of a job causes anxiety and brings a flood of negative emotions into our lives, including anger, sadness and misunderstanding. This is why it is often compared to grieving. Psychologically, is the comparison realistic? Isn’t it a bit of a stretch?
“The notion of grieving is linked to the notion of loss,” said Gautier. “Grief is the loss of something, of a loved one, of an ideal. As humans, we experience grief throughout our lives: losing a loved one, a job, a house… The first grieving experience we come up against is when as infants we are separated from our mothers.”
Knowing the psychological mechanisms related to bereavement sheds light on what is experienced in situations of job loss, although on slightly different levels, explains the psychologist, who studied grief when she worked in palliative care. “Without trying to rank these different situations of loss and the emotional suffering they entail, the psychological mechanisms are nonetheless similar,” said Gautier.
Situations you have to adjust to, whether you like it or not
Many situations can leave you grieving for a job. Unfortunately, the most common is getting sacked, due to economic reasons or otherwise. “When you get fired, you have to separate, against your will, from the company you worked for. This requires psychological detachment from the place, and from the team you’ve worked with up to that point,” said Gautier. It takes time to process the change, a bit like after a break-up.
Any sudden upheaval in our work environment requires us to make a significant adjustment. However, the experience depends on whether the situation is created by choice or if it is forced upon us. In the case of a voluntary departure, such as resigning or a contract coming to an end, being the decision-maker helps in the process of accepting this new situation because you have some control over it. This changes everything! In fact, the more you have control over your situation, the less you suffer from it, and the easier the psychological work of moving on will be.
The phases of grieving
What goes through your head when you lose your job? The late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist who worked in end-of-life care, identified different phases that you go through in bereavement, which she called the five stages of grief. Her observations are relevant enough to describe the emotional states you may go through when dealing with losing your job:
- Shock and denial: A refusal to believe what has happened. Listlessness and paralysis in the face of events that have upset the course of your life.
- Anger: Attempting to lash out. A very strong feeling of unfairness and a search for guilty parties, for example by going after your employer.
- Bargaining: Settling and negotiating with yourself; making excuses for not moving forward.
- Depression: Feeling defeated. The desire to throw your hands up and give in to sadness.
- Acceptance: The events are gradually processed, the wound is no longer raw, and you are able to accept what has happened and move on.
This theoretical model improves our understanding of the rollercoaster ride we go on in times of crisis, but not everyone facing a loss goes through all of the stages, as Gautier reminds us. “There is no standardised process, no specific pattern as to how you experience events. You don’t necessarily feel all the described stages, nor are they all obligatory.” The grieving process is far from linear, and there is often a lot of moving two steps forward and one step back.
Grief is a unique experience
Losing a job that you really enjoyed and leaving a job that weighed you down are two different experiences. When it comes to job loss, it’s impossible to compare one person’s situation to another. Even if you are laid off, for example, your feelings will not be the same as those of your colleagues, who may be in the same boat. Gautier explains: “Several factors come into play: seniority, level of involvement, level of responsibility, personal history and so on.”
Grieving and moving on
As with any grieving process, the important thing is to keep moving forward, despite the personal crisis you may be going through. This way you can gradually regain any lost confidence and slowly get back to work. This process doesn’t happen in a day, says Gautlier. “Leaving a job correctly is essential if you hope to bounce back,” she said, and that—above all else— requires giving yourself time.
The importance of self-care
A job loss causes a shock wave. Your daily life is turned upside-down in spite of your best efforts, your emotions are in turmoil and your future is uncertain. In these chaotic moments, it is essential to give yourself time to breathe, to find yourself, and to take care of yourself and of your health. You are in the “high crisis” phase, now is not the time to make any decisions. Instead, acknowledge the blow and accept it. Reactions are extremely personal, and you can be impacted at different levels, advises Gautier. “Sometimes your morale holds up, and the body is actually the first to let go. Difficulty sleeping, mood swings and food issues are fairly telling indicators.”
Taking care of yourself means paying attention to your sleep patterns, keeping up a certain pace in your life, and doing sport and activities that you appreciate. Why not try to maintain a certain lifestyle and create new routines?
Look back and assess your situation
Before you can move on, you need to take a step back to be able to internalise and gradually process what has happened. After that, try to focus on the positive. “It’s important to be able to take stock of the position you left. Things are neither black nor white. What are you going to take away from this situation? What have you learnt for the future?” asks Gautier. Be kind to yourself as you evaluate your experience— this is key to overcoming the moment of crisis.
For the psychologist, this self-assessment requires us to manage the ambivalence of the situation. “You can name and identify the elements of satisfaction and dissatisfaction related to your last job, to keep the good points and look to what comes next. This can be an opportunity to identify what you need from your next job, and also what you have learnt, which you can take away for yourself.” If you can, get some help: this task is sometimes easier when you’re not doing it alone!
How to find the right words
How can you, simply and with your head held high, share what you’re going through? What do you tell your spouse, children, friends and family? How do you announce that you’re leaving to your colleagues? There is often a fear of being judged by the people in our lives. This externalisation phase is an important element in moving on. But what can you say about what you’re going through, and how can you cope with it?
According to Gautier, what you feel ready to share is an indicator of the stage you’re at in the process. It’s very important to prepare for what to say next: “You often don’t realise the importance of good communication. It’s a matter of communicating internally within the company, and communicating externally as well. Communication is something you have to prepare for. Who do you need to communicate with, how, when, and of course what message do you want to deliver?”
Communication implies having clear ideas, which are hard to formulate in the heat of the moment. Why not prepare the message you would like to convey to your soon-to-be former colleagues and clients, but also to your family and friends, who will ask you questions at the next social gathering? Finding the words to talk about what you’re going through will also be decisive in your future job search. If talk as positively as possible about your last experience, it will help to make a better impression on recruiters.
Redefine your identity and your relationship with work
The experience of job loss is a blow to your self-confidence, but also to your self-image. Your professional identity—“My name is X, I’m an employee of company X”—is not just about your job, but also of the image you have of yourself, which will be completely redefined. Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, has written extensively on what she calls “transitional identities”, explaining the need to redefine your professional identity at each new shift in your career. It’s a demanding psychological shake-up!
Your relationship with work is also being called into question: how much importance do you want to give it in your life? “If you tend to define yourself socially through work, for example, the loss of a job can upset that balance. When you’re done with your job, what’s left? People’s identities are completely destabilised,” said Gautier, who often observes this in her counselling sessions. Everything has to be redefined. “What are your desires, your needs, what importance do you place on things?” Perhaps this is an opportunity to redefine your work/life balance.
Surround yourself with the right people and ask for help
If at all possible, don’t deal with these events alones. The support of your loved ones, of your family and friends, is essential. However, their presence can sometimes be confusing: some, might unintentionally pile on the pressure by projecting their fears and anxieties onto you. This is exactly what you don’t need! Surround yourself with the most understanding and caring people. And, as Gautier reminds us, don’t be afraid to seek out competent professionals: consultants, mentors, shrinks, coaches and so on. “It’s important not to be afraid to ask for help,” she said.
Getting help if you need it can be a real boost in finding closure: it can allow you to calmly take stock of what’s happened and assist your job search. Asking for help is not always easy. But as Gaultier explains, “being able to ask for help also means showing others that you can be there later to help them”.
Losing a job is a test of your resilience—your ability to bounce back and to adapt in the face of adversity. Take stock of where work fits into your life, seek help and take the time to turn the situation into something positive. Slowly you’ll get back on the road to employment and rebuild your self-esteem. This forced career transition is also an opportunity to initiate a change for the greater good!
Translated by Kalin Linsberg
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