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Loss of a Job can Have Psychological Impact, say Experts

The nation's jobless rate recently hit a five-month low, but you wouldn't know it in North Carolina. There, unemployment has doubled in the last two years and now stands at almost seven percent. Both manufacturing and high-tech industries have suffered sizable layoffs. Those layoffs can cause workers to face psychological stress when they lose their livelihood.

Steve Dawson, 48, has experienced the layoff process from both sides. As head of personnel at a small North Carolina software company, Mr. Dawson had to tell some of his co-workers they'd be let go. Then, in a senior management meeting, the Human Resources Director engineered his own layoff.

"I made it very easy for our president," he says. "And I quickly said, in this meeting, that by virtue of the smaller and smaller population, that we simply can't support the job of a Director of H.R. [Human Resources] anymore."

Mr. Dawson calls the six months he's been unemployed an emotional roller coaster. His family has had to cut their expenses and lower their expectations. He's had to look for another job and face rejection. But he says it helps him to remember that these days, there are many other qualified professionals in the same straits.

"I can tell you, I hold my head very high when I'm going about my job search, because of the circumstances in the market," he says. "And quite honestly with hiring managers, they are completely understanding of what's happened and do not perceive my losing my job as some sort of inherent weakness, because it isn't."

Steve Dawson says he is handling the stress remarkably well. Others who lose their jobs have a tougher time. That doesn't surprise therapist Eileen Cleary, who says many Americans build much of their self-esteem around work and its associated benefits - incomes, job titles, expense accounts, company phones. She says it doesn't help that the process of getting laid off can sometimes be pretty harsh.

"Layoffs that I've observed often happen in one day," she says. "You know, five people get called into the office, and while they're in the office their computer access is turned off, and they're told to leave the building within an hour, and they're escorted out by a security guard. They don't get to say goodbye to their co-workers, they don't get to bring closure to things they're in the middle of doing. And they feel like criminals, almost, [asking themselves] what have I done wrong?"

Ms. Cleary says this can be traumatic for people who have worked hard, played by the rules, achieved success and expected to feel secure.

"It's more than losing a job," she says. "They have lost trust in the system."

The first thing many people want to do when they're laid off is to run out and find another job. But Eileen Cleary and other counselors say, not so fast! It's just as important for people to allow themselves time to move through the process of coping with their loss. It brings up a host of feelings: shock, grief, anxiety, depression, anger. The sense of loss can also re-open old emotional wounds.

Psychologist Steve Mullinix says the healing process can allow individuals to re-evaluate themselves and to clarify their priorities. And that, he says, helps people regain a sense of control over their lives.

"What will provide some stability in this kind of changing economy is taking some steps to really identify your values, identify what are your skills, your interests, what are your real aims in life, what are your goals? And how does work help you attain that," he asks.

DBM is an outplacement services company in Raleigh, North Carolina that helps workers with the practicalities of finding a job. Even here, the right attitude is vital. Mardi Hack advises her clients to envision an interview going well and an offer being made, and then to let that vision "go out into the universe." Above all, Ms. Hack tells them not to wallow in self-pity.

"They are in desperate circumstances. But you've got to disengage from the desperate, and think of something positive," he says. "You can't have fear and faith in your head at the same time."

The notion of faith is attracting a lot of attention these days. Over the last year, job seekers networks have sprung up in churches all over central North Carolina. One of the largest is at Colonial Baptist Church in the town of Cary. In addition to prayer, members share everything from job leads to tips on networking.

Group founder Doug Johnson is part of what he calls the 'telecom meltdown.' He's been out of work 14 months and has used up both his severance pay and his unemployment benefits. He says he and his wife might have to sell their house and move. Still, Mr. Johnson says his faith keeps him from feeling like a helpless victim.

"However long God has for us to walk down this path, that's where our faith is, that He is sufficient to bring us through this, and that God is having us walk through this for a reason," he says.

Even when people like Doug Johnson and Steve Dawson do find jobs, they'll be entering a world of work far different than the one they started in decades ago. Almost no job offers long-term security anymore.

It's an unsettling reality, perhaps, but one that once and future workers can use to their advantage. Job counselors say that thinking more like an independent contractor and less like a corporate cog can help them control their own fate in an increasingly uncertain economy.