November 6, 2020

Don’t let your job loss define you

Dealing with the loss of a job can be stressful and draining. Here are some tips to deal with the associated anxiety.

5 min read

So, it happened. You lost your job.

Faced with this new reality you’re probably feeling an array of emotions—sadness, disappointment, anxiety, shame, anger. You’re worried about what you’re going to do now, who you can ask for help, and what people will think.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. According to the August 2020 Devex report, 59 percent of development practitioners had either lost their job, or knew somebody who had—up from 36 percent reported in April 2020.

As it turns out, job loss can produce different levels of stress depending on how threatening the event appears to you,what resources you have available to deal with this loss, and how much you had invested in your job.

Related article: Managing your career during COVID-19

Based on my experience as a leadership coach, and lessons learned from researchers who have studied the effects of job loss, here are some tips on what can help:

1. Understand what you are feeling

You are probably going through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). While developed in 1969 in the context of bereavement, Dutch researchers have recently found that the same cycle is applicable in the context of job loss. This is normal.

It is possible to accelerate your journey to acceptance.

The good news is that you don’t need to go through all five stages, and you don’t have to do it in the given sequence. It is possible to accelerate your journey to acceptance. It might be hard, particularly if you are experiencing ‘workplace betrayal’, where you believe you were treated unfairly by your colleagues, boss, or organisation, and hence experience anger as well. Given that, strategies that might help include:

  • Work on finding forgiveness. Holding onto anger drains energy. Forgiveness frees us.
  • Find community with those that have gone through a similar experience.
  • Get a coach, a mentor, or a loved one to serve as a listening ear, and help you process the experience.

However, if your job loss is leading to a significant deterioration in psychological, physical, and social well-being, then you may be going through what Dutch researchers call, ‘Complicated Job Loss Grief’ (CJLG). This is characterised by separation distress combined with difficulty accepting the loss, moving on, and finding meaning in life, causing persistent suffering and impairments in functioning. If so, speak to a therapist.

Two arrows facing opposite directions

This emergency may just be the opportunity for the emergence of a new you. | Picture courtesy: Pixabay

2. Take stock

Do not jump head-first into the search for a new job. Neuroscience tells us that deep anxiety triggers fear-circuits in the brain, which is expressed as hyper-vigilance and extreme behavioural responsiveness towards fearful stimuli. With this context, it is easy to understand that when reeling from the after-effects of having lost your job, you might not be in a position to make the best choices (this includes choices about your next role, career direction, and even interpersonal choices).

When reeling from the after-effects of having lost your job, you might not be in a position to make the best choices.

Here, it is important to caveat that not everybody has the privilege of taking a pause between jobs. If, however, you are able to take a break, then appraise and recharge your health at a mental, emotional, relational, physical, spiritual, and financial level, what I call a MERPS-F model. Here, there are some tips that might be useful:

Related article: Productivity at the cost of well-being.

  • Mental: Ensure your day operates through a well set daily routine. A job gives structure to your time, so with the structure taken away, you need to create one. Secondly, ensure that your routine includes reading, listening ,and viewing that stimulates the mind­—the key here is to apply your mind in a problem-solving mode, preferably in challenges that have a clear definition of a win. An example of this may even include fixing things that have long been neglected at home. What’s important is that you give yourself opportunities to regularly experience winning, even if in small ways.
  • Emotional: Practice self-awareness. Notice your feelings, name them, and create a distance between the feeling and yourself. For example, articulating it as, “I am feeling anger”, instead of “I am angry” enables you to view anger as a passing phase.
  • Relational: It is important that you have someone with whom you can be your authentic self; who provides you a safe, non-judgemental space. Likewise, having someone who you can contribute to has a nurturing effect. This person can be a friend, loved one, coach, therapist, or a support group.
  • Physical: Give yourself adequate nourishment, rest, exercise, and healthy intimacy. Physical health and habits can be indicators of what is going on with our mental and emotional health as well. For instance, excessive sleep or indulgence in ‘comfort food’ may indicate prevalence of stress and self-pity, while disturbed sleep may indicate anxiety.
  • Spiritual: The spiritual dimension refers to thoughts, practices, reading, listening, and keeping company that help give primacy to the regeneration of your spirit. These could be religious or secular in nature. With the proliferation of podcasts, apps, YouTube videos, audio-books and the like, the world has transformed into a spiritual treasure trove.
  • Financial: It is important that you attend to your financial health with a calm mind and a practical, fact-driven approach. For some, this needs to be the starting point before focusing on the other dimensions of their health. Your goal here is to ask yourself the practical question of: How much time can I give myself? This can be arrived at by taking stock of your current assets; ie, those that are not ear-marked to long-term goals like retirement, kids’ education, and so on. And take note of your current liabilities—your day-to-day expenses plus any bigger expenses that are likely to occur in the next one year or so. This will give you a practical sense of how long you can give yourself. Invariably for most people, having done the numbers, they know they can give themselves the time they need to reflect and reset.

3. Figure out your ‘reset’

Your reset consists of answering three pairs of questions­—articulate clearly your life purpose and ‘flow’; your long-term financial goals and life’s liabilities and assets; and the applicability of your skills in the future. Use these three factors as a lens to see how your current career measures up, and the changes you may need to make to realign your career trajectory to make it more purposeful, financially appropriate, and relevant to the market. As an impact sector professional, articulating your purpose will likely be the easiest; but also the hardest—like a good theory of change, you need to determine your personal definition of success in defining impact. The other two aspects, financial and market relevance, tend to be neglected by most in the treadmill of day-to-day work.

But that’s where the good news about this lay off may be. It has thrown you off of the path of inertia. This emergency may just be the opportunity for the emergence of a new you.

Know more

  • Learn more on how to cope with the stress of being laid off and unemployment.

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Rajen Makhijani-Image
Rajen Makhijani

Rajen Makhijani, from IIM Calcutta (2000), has been in the impact sector for the last seven years. He worked with Dalberg as the founder and global head of leadership and talent practice, at the University of Chicago's Tata Centre for Development as country director, and as the founder of the boutique, Leadership By Results. He recently authored a chapter in the book 'Global Handbook of Impact Investing'. He is a two time TEDx speaker.