How to deal with losing your job during a crisis

Apr 28, 2020

6 mins

How to deal with losing your job during a crisis
Emma Cullinan

Psychotherapist and writer

Lost your job since the terms “pandemic”, “social distancing” and “lockdown” became common terminology? You’re not alone. If you’ve lost your job, learn how to deal with this career setback and you’ll come out the other side all the better for it.

Losing a job can be devastating. It affects your sense of self, not to mention your livelihood. An increasing number of us are now facing this daunting prospect due to the Covid-19 crisis. The figures are startling: the UK Office of Budget Responsibility predicts unemployment will soar to two million—10% of the working population—by the end of June. Nearly one million people applied for Universal Credit between the middle and end of March and one in 20 had lost their job by the end of March, according to a YouGov poll.

Every one of these is a life-changer, as former managing director Sophie testifies. “I was called into a meeting one day and told I was no longer needed. Within half an hour I was on the street in a complete daze, thrown out of a company I had set up. I felt my identity had been stolen, I went home and just sobbed. I didn’t have a clue what to do—my sense of purpose had gone. It took me a few years to recover.”

How being unemployed affects us psychologically

Losing your job leads to all sorts of difficult feelings and states, which are perfectly natural but challenging all the same. The Covid-19 lockdown can heighten these emotions because we are already reassessing our lives and wondering what the future holds. Such feelings include:

1. Identity reappraisal

Sophie describes the main impact well, which is the loss of a sense of identity. If you were asked to describe yourself, it’s likely you would put your job into the answer, and the first question we often ask each other is, “What do you do?” When you’ve lost your job you might wonder, who am I now?

2. Anger

“I was so angry when I was made redundant two years ago,” said Lucy, who was an office manager. “I had given so much to the company, working overtime for no extra pay and doing tasks above my grade. Then they gave my job to the boss’s girlfriend. I felt exploited. It just felt so unfair and so personal. My colleagues supported me in private but nobody dared back me up publicly for fear of their own jobs.”

When our sense of self and way of life come under attack we naturally feel angry: this will be directed at those who ended our employment as well as, perhaps, former colleagues and maybe ourselves, too. These are difficult emotions that may also disrupt your sense of identity if you previously saw yourself as a kind person who did not judge others.

3. Self-esteem

If you are directing the anger and blame at yourself, then this probably stems from existing low self-esteem, which can sink even further. You might blame yourself for what happened, although it’s easier if it was a case of collective redundancy rather than selective job cuts. You might think you weren’t good enough, especially if you had a critical parent or bullying boss, and tend to hold these sorts of beliefs about yourself. Remember that our thoughts are not necessarily the truth, they are our perception of it.

4. Shock

Many are living in fear—“I’ve been furloughed but reckon I’ll lose my job when the lockdown is over,” said journalist Brian—but it still comes as a shock to be told you’ve lost your job. Shock is often felt both mentally and physically: adrenalin courses through your body as part of the “flight or fight” response due to the perceived attack, even if this is an assault on your sense of self and livelihood rather than a physical one. You may also burst into tears—don’t berate yourself for this, of course, you are crying—and/or shake, and have foggy, disoriented thinking. Ride through this state, understand what is happening, and be wary about responding to the internal fight message by shouting.

Such is the shock of losing a job that a raft of euphemisms have grown around getting fired or being made redundant to try and soften the blow. These include downsizing, letting you go (as if the employer is enabling you to do something you chose), career transition, workforce rationalization, relieved of duty, restructuring, and so on.

5. Exclusion

This can be from society, peer groups, or colleagues. With many jobs comes interaction with people (whether it’s colleagues or the public), status, recognition, meetings, teamwork, social events, and outings. Suddenly you are away from all of this, alone at home. Sophie describes this sense of isolation: “My family, friends, and former colleagues were all still at work so I felt cut off from their world.”

During the lockdown, many of us are already experiencing how this sense of isolation feels, although because everyone is in the same boat there is less FOMO (fear of missing out). Undoubtedly, losing your job during lockdown can exacerbate feelings of isolation, boredom, and lack of direction.

6. Feeling low

Experiencing all of the above can naturally leave us feeling down. One cause of depression is not living in a way that suits who you are, which can be triggered by a job loss. Lucy found that she was lying in bed later and later, feeling that, with no job to go to, there was little point in getting up.
A stressful event, feeling you don’t have much of a future, and/or feeling alone can also lead to depression—some or all of which you may feel during the Covid-19 lockdown anyway to some extent, whether you are employed or not.

7. Relief

For a lucky few, redundancy could be welcome. Perhaps you hated your job anyway and have received a generous payout. Yet even then, the life change can be scary. “I took voluntary redundancy and was given enough money to tide me over for two years while I set my own company up. Yet when I signed the document I still felt as if I was jumping off a cliff into the unknown,” said graphic designer Alex.

How to deal with these emotions

If you know what to expect, you can start to address the feelings and issues that are going to emerge after you hear the news that you’ve lost your job.

1. Process your loss

Losses present our biggest challenges throughout life: from the end of a relationship or a death to moving house or country.

You need time to process a loss and experiencing all of the feelings described above means that you are human. When you feel sad, angry, or low, address this and tell yourself it is natural, if incredibly painful, to feel this way. We do gradually come to terms with huge losses. Let that process happen organically without feeling the need to snap out of it as early as possible.

2. Examine your identity

Think about who you are now and where you want to be. This is a time for assessing your life and your future. What didn’t you like about your job? What would you like to change? Imagine if someone told you that your life would be exactly the same all the way through. Your reaction shows that humans do like variety, even if we find change a big challenge.

3. Do not suffer alone

It can be tempting to retreat like a wounded cat, but you need to talk this through. If you don’t want to, or can’t, share with someone in your life, seek professional help. You might not be able to do this face-to-face, but counselors are still working online during the lockdown. Be aware that you are having valid feelings so resist anyone trying to pathologize them; they are normal.

4. Boost self-esteem

Watch the way you think about yourself. You have already suffered a loss and feel assaulted, so don’t add to that by heaping the blame on yourself. Catch those thoughts—where do they stem from?

5. Use your time wisely

Often those who get a job after being out of work for a while look back and wonder why they frittered away the time worrying and job-hunting. Yes, you’ll need to look for work, but give yourself time to do what you enjoy. This can be harder during lockdown but, graduate Louise, who hasn’t managed to start work yet, has found a way. “I have never exercised in my life but now I’m only allowed out to exercise. I’ve taken up power-walking.” she said.

6. Tap into your inner drive

Try to see this as an opportunity while also validating your negative feelings. For example, Sophie decided to retrain as a teacher. “After three years of lethargy I eventually realized I could now do what I had wanted to do right from childhood,” she said. “The loss of one career enabled me to try another and I love it.” Lucy retrained as well and completed a master’s in health and safety. “Being made redundant was the best thing that happened to me. I am self-employed now and am never short of work,” she said.

Lucy had no idea that everything would work out for the best when she lost her job and faced the fear we all have of never working again. Upskill, side-step, or reassess your goals and, who knows, you could end up with an even better job, too.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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