As many businesses and employees look towards the coming months to recover from the impact of COVID-19, it’s impossible to ignore the loss that this pandemic has brought about. Following restrictions, businesses have closed and those that have remained open have been put under tremendous stress, leading to unemployment levels not seen since the early 20th century. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there has been a decrease of 12.1 million working hours and 142,000 workers from the work force between April and May 2020.
In addition to providing income and financial security, employment is linked to an individual’s sense of self, providing structure, a sense of purpose and social stimulation. It follows that, unemployment can lead to poorer physical and mental health including anxiety, depression and generally poorer psychological wellbeing outcomes (Harris & Harris, 2009). This is especially devastating for individuals who loved their job or had spent a significant amount of time building their career. It is therefore not uncommon to experience an overwhelming sense of loss and grief upon job loss. Some may even experience what psychologists refer to as ‘identity crises’ that results in the knowledge of who I am becoming unclear or unrecognisable to an individual (Maitlis, 2020).
In Maitlis’ (2019) research, it was found that individuals were able to move through their loss and grow in the following three phases:
Phase 1: Managing distress and regulating emotions
After the loss of a job, there can be overwhelming feelings of anxiety, grief, anger and shame, etc. that can be difficult to regulate. Emotional responses are heightened in this period due to increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which can also make it difficult to focus on other things. Both of these hormones can help us to react in the moment, however when emotion-based processing takes over, this can be less helpful over time. In these circumstances, our clear thinking and self-regulation can be inhibited. To counter the potentially negative effects of emotion-based processing, we can start to process job loss or under-employment by seeking support from others or practicing relaxation techniques (e.g. mindfulness or breathing exercises) that allow us to acknowledge these emotions.
Recovery from the shock and grief of sudden unemployment is difficult and takes time. Moreover, looking towards new possibilities, especially with the added challenges of reduced social support, hiring freezes and increased mental and financial stress is not always an immediate solution. Part of navigating the experience of grief and shock experienced through employment changes can involve ‘sitting with’ the psychological discomfort and allowing oneself time to process these experiences. Supportive self-care strategies and small psychological thinking shifts during this time could include:
- Prioritising self-care: eating healthy foods, getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep each night and, moving your body each day;
- Seeking and maintaining positive social connections: with peers, friends, family, local community groups, etc., and;
- Giving yourself permission: to grieve for what you feel has been lost, what you are grateful for in this moment, and allow yourself time to imagine what possibilities there could be in future if options were limitless.
Phase 2: Sensemaking
This process begins after we are able to regulate our emotions and involves working to make sense of the loss. Part of this is mentally creating a narrative for ourselves around the experience of what has happened, and what this means to us as an individual. Making sense of something unexpected and traumatic can allow the individual to regain that sense of control and security that they lost when removed from their job. This can involve reframing the experience of job loss and re-evaluating job experience, skills and qualities for a new role or career, which can be supported by talking to trusted advisors about our experience.
Phase 3: Experiment and integrate
As a follow up to sensemaking, we can make opportunities to experiment and grow our self-identity. These experiments can involve working on new or past hobbies, listening to talks, meeting new people or taking on short-term work. As we experiment, we can continue to reflect on these experiences and what they might mean for us, whether it is reflection of these new experiences in the context of our career or personal life.
While unemployed individuals are looking towards the job market to secure their next job, they may be competing against others who are also seeking a change in career. The time removed from the office and routine allows for some reflection to take place, wherein we can take a moment to think about what may or may not be missing from our usual routine. As a result, we may come to realise that our career or organisation are no longer able to meet our psychological or material needs. This could promote a desire for more flexibility, professional development opportunities or even highlight a mismatch in preferred work styles or values. Some strategies that individuals may look to adopt under these circumstances could include:
- Exploring career coaching opportunities (e.g. accessing registered psychologists that provide such services through the ‘Find a Psychologist’ function on the APS website);
- Returning to education and training to explore valued domains;
- Reimagining career pathways in the same or even a different organisation, or;
- Exploring opportunities to satisfy your value-needs outside of work (e.g., beginning a ‘passion project’, volunteering in your community, spending more time with family, etc.).
In the long term, it is worth considering how to minimise the negative effect of unemployment on mental health. It has been suggested that a change in government and organizational policies could have a role in shifting the significance of employment on the perception of individual worth. For example, recognizing social roles (such as caregiving as work) may encourage parents and other caretakers to find pride and meaning in these roles in addition to their roles in paid work (Rao, 2020). Organisations could take lessons learnt from online and remote working experiences in the past few months to shift expectations around availability and ‘face-time’ by adopting a focus on promoting flexible work policies, wherein utilising such policies is seen as acceptable and does not impinge upon perceived or objective career success (Rao, 2020).
While unemployment can be distressing and put financial and mental stress on the affected individuals, there are steps that can be taken to move through this difficult time and grow in the process. Resources and support from registered psychologists can be accessed on the APS website. Whereas many psychologists will focus on the provision of support for managing psychological distress and grief, organisational psychologists can provide outplacement services, career development, leadership and career coaching services. Individuals looking to seek support can access ‘Find a Psychologist’ to search for psychologists by location, specialised psychological issues, language spoken and Medicare eligibility.
 For more detailed resources, please see: https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-topics/Stress-in-the-workplace or https://www.psychology.org.au/for-members/publications/inpsych/2018/feb/Being-mindful-of-mindfulness
Practical Steps to Recovering from Sudden Unemployment