Tech layoffs. The death of the remote jobs that thrived during COVID-19. And the recession.
To put it bluntly, the recession that was supposed to happen during the pandemic, then got artificially resuscitated by government funds all over the world, throw in the Russian-Ukraine wars and supply-side shocks. . . and we are now paying the price for the zombie that’s been created.
Job loss is never easy. I know, because my father lost his job a few times during economic recessions when the fortunes of the companies he worked for changed. Being in senior leadership, it is easy to lose your job during cyclical changes. We always survived, my parents being prudent people; but being all-too-human, we worried.
Inspired by this and other stories of people in high-flying positions who’d lost their jobs due to recessions, freak accidents, or betrayals, I decided to do a study for my doctorate dissertation on this at University College London. Most studies then featured people recruited in job centers within a given city or country, meaning they were of a completely different demographic. Instead, I built a website and recruited a global audience of 202 people in middle management and above, predominantly via LinkedIn. To generate patterns for statistics, I conducted it quantitatively; and then to get deeper into what people experienced, I also added a qualitative component.
Here’s what I found:
- When people are anxiously preoccupied with their job loss situation, they cope poorly, and have poorer outcomes in terms of their mental health and employment outcomes.
- The same goes for those who do ‘disengagement coping’, meaning they engage in behaviours that help distract the symptoms of the problems, but not the root. For instance, complaining, drinking excessively, or feeling sorry for themselves; without also actively finding jobs or processing the trauma of job loss.
- People who were most satisfied with the aftermath had more open personalities, meaning they were more open to what would happen next, instead of having a fixed rigid view of life.
- Those who were most conscientious in the aftermath of job loss were less satisfied.
- People who made meaning out of the episode, meaning they processed it mentally and emotionally, were satisfied with their outcomes.
- Making an inventory of the resources you can tap into helps.
- Job loss produces trauma symptoms.
Translation? Here’s what you can do:
First, acknowledge it sucks.
Nevermind if someone tells you, your job was toxic anyway. That you need a rest. That maybe, it’s a lesson or a blessing in disguise. That can come later.
Before you get to learning the lesson and benefiting from it, you can’t bypass what you are feeling.
And you will feel any, some or most of the following:
Angry. Anxious. Ashamed. Betrayed. Broken. Depressed. Disappointed. Hopeless. Lost. Panic. Terrified.
One the flipside, you might also feel these:
Free. Happy. Hopeful. Relieved. Possibilities. Promise.
Insert any feelings to the above.
You will feel a cocktail of emotions, because you are human.
So acknowledge it sucks. Acknowledge you may not know how to face others. Acknowledge you wonder about your finances, especially if you have debt or dependents.
Keep resetting your brain.
Your fear center— the amygdala— will keep hijacking you. It will tell you stories about how this will last forever, you will never recover, you are too old to go somewhere else, and all sorts of terrible things.
To do that, you have to keep doing deep breathing— and remember that when you breathe in, you expand your belly like a balloon, and vice versa. Form is everything here. Do them when you are feeling good or neutral, so they become muscle memory when you are feeling bad; just like you don’t start saving money only when you are in debt.
Know your view of the world has changed, and that is okay.
To be human is to have existential and practical anxieties seep in from time-to-time, even when things are good.
And to be human is to go through events in life that will change us. You don’t need to have gone through nearly losing your life or watching someone lose their lives to experience trauma symptoms; even supposedly-joyous things like promotions can lead to trauma symptoms. And this isn’t the time to go oh, first world problems, and feel bad. Your experiences are real for you, this isn’t a comparison or it’s a dastard race to the bottom.
As humans, we are run by an unconscious assumptive world, according to researcher Janoff-Bulman. This world is one where we believe that the world is generally a benign place, good things happen to us, and bad things happen to others. But when something bad happens to us, this world gets shattered. And unbeknownst to us, we start automatically thinking the world is a dangerous place, and bad things happen to us; because one thing has happened. And we start looking out for bad things, pre-empting excessively for bad things, and seeing the world through a lens of extreme anxiety.
That is not a good way to live.
So whilst you acknowledge that yes, this sucks, you will have to look out for the good things too. The genuinely good stuff. Like the things that bring you joy. The things you are grateful for. Small victories like you got the carpark lot. Work on having 4 positive ideas and interactions to 1 negative one.
Bring the numbers up slowly.
It is not permanent.
Professor Martin Seligman started off studying learned helplessness, where dogs are placed in an enclosure, electric-shocked when they try to leave, and then they stop attempting even when the gate is opened. Learned helplessness happens to people too. Then one day, he decided that we study alot of dysfunction in life, so why not also study the stuff that helps us flourish.
Enter Positive Psychology. Which isn’t about rainbow-farting unicorns or singing kumbaya deludedly. It is about ways to see the world and ways to live.
Because, the human brain is wired to avoid loss, and the human brain is also wired to remember negative stuff. So you already have that rigged against you.
And you have to help yourself out of that.
He came up with the concept of the 3Ps. And it is here that we can use this lens.
- How PERMANENT is this job loss situation? (And what can you do differently?)
- How PERVASIVE is this? (Just because you lost a job doesn’t mean you are a failure in all parts of your life, from your health to your relationships to your finances).
- How PERSONALLY do you take it? (It is not just about you, consider the wider factors).
Find ways to both manage and master
You need a mixture of things to manage the situation like your feelings and expectations, and then to master the situation and your next chapter.
Emotion-focused coping is about you soothe your emotions. And that is good; we all need that. Just remember to watch how far you take it. For instance, a glass of wine may be great when you’re out and thinking YOLO, but two bottles a night is a crutch. Talking to your friends is great, you may feel less alone; but you can’t just emotionally vomit on them without doing anything.
Problem-focused coping is when you take practical steps, like polishing your CV, hiring a coach, or changing the parameters within which your life operates.
Write a list of the above you’d engage in.
Spin your spiel
No matter how you think you may only be answerable to yourself, or ‘screw what others think’, you are human after all. There may be people who want a story. So spin your spiel, because if you don’t tell your story, someone else will do it for you. . and you’re not gonna like it.
Here, draw an onion with you in the center. Decide who qualifies to be in which layer, and why. For each layer, decide the details of the story you will give. They can be as little or much as you’d like.
You can even tell people “I am telling you this, and I do not want any suggestions or advice”. Boundaries, #ftw.
Audit your assets before rushing to grab any job.
Sometimes we never know just how truly wealthy or impoverished we are until we are forced to sit down to evaluate.
Think about the assets you have. Career, skills, talents, financial, social, attitudinal.
Plug into these before you start to send out applications willy-nilly or make announcements on LinkedIn. Remember, procrastination isn’t your enemy here, it is precrastination which creates more messes to clean up whilst giving you the illusion that you are being effective. (See that part of conscientiousness and outcomes). Build deep foundations first.
As a CFO, my father always got offered a job by someone else in his circle, whether from church, the adult students he’d lecture managerial accounting to, or his ex-colleagues. To this day, we always marvel about social assets. This is the same for many people in my study.
Career- and skills-wise, consider the things you are great at, at your last job and then generally in your career. Imagine they were bullet points of your greatest hits, what would they be? Then add the numbers to these greatest hits.
- Grew the brand from regional to global, adding 257% revenue.
- Changed the public perception of the company from ___ to ___.
- Spearheaded a project that ______, which increased ratings from ___ to ____.
If you have a high-profile job where people might spin stories about you, have an out beforehand. Prep and get ready to push the launch button for your next project to make it look like it was a deliberate calculated move.
Outsource, outsource, outsource
Maybe it’s someone to update your CV and LinkedIn in a way that puts you in a great light. After all, this is not a natural skill, and many of us have a very defunct LinkedIn profile.
Maybe it’s an executive coach to help you do the above.
Or maybe it’s a therapist to help you with your headspace and process traumas that are stored in your body, because you can’t mantra them away. And maybe it’s also time to look at all the other burdens you’ve been carrying and coping all this while.
TypeA leaders have a busy mind and a tired body, and whilst you have always found ways to cope with it. . wouldn’t it be sweet relief to let that go and perform better, whilst sleeping better and having smoother relationships?
Humans are meaning-making creatures. We have always lived by stories, and that is why traditionally, people have always gathered by the hearth for food and tales.
Fast forward to modern life, we still remember stories, not facts.
Having a story on how then leads to now helps us process difficult episodes. Especially when it comes to trauma, because trauma is stored in the body, and has to be released by working with the body.
Otherwise, the brain does this thing called repetition compulsion, where we keep entering the same situations, trying to solve it unconsciously but with the wrong circumstances that echo the original. Except that with every next bad episode, it feels like a bad magic spell. Talk about learned helplessness? How about learned hopelessness.
So making meaning means that as we take care of ourselves and write our next chapters, we actively make this an opportunity for growth and transformation.
You can ask yourself
- What are you forced to reprioritise?
- What no longer matters in your life?
- What has become bloated, or a pattern you no longer want to carry.
- How can you live differently, whether it is in your day-to-day conditions or in the way you conduct your relationships?
- What lessons are you learning about yourself as you spend your days in the in-between phase of job loss and re-employment, whether you make this period a deliberate rest or a temporary one until things change.
- What are you re-discovering about your old interests and joys (you are allowed to smile and have some joy in your life!).
- What do you no longer ever want to tolerate?
- Or, if you ever lost your job again (or decided to quit), how would your life be differently equipped to support you?
And, what did your identity center around? For many, it revolves around work. But work isn’t just you. You are a multi-faceted creature. So consider how you’d like to be remembered, especially when you die.
What would you like people to say about you in your eulogy?
I christened my study Chapter Chrysalis because I’ve always thought about how much energy it takes for a butterfly to emerge from its cocoon. The conditions have to be right, and the pressure builds up within. If a human assists, things break down and the butterfly is never born. Every butterfly is a miracle.
Life happens. Life can suck. And life can be boring. And life can also be glorious.
As the late Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh mused, pain is inevitable, but we can learn to suffer better.
And so we can learn to not add to our sufferings in Chapter Chrysalis by taking care of our minds and bodies. And letting people we trust take care of us.
If you’re reading this, I hope this brings you comfort that you’re not the only one who’s been through this, and you will not be the only one going to the other side.
May this chapter pay you dividends.
Keen to know more? Why not buy Dr P’s workbook from Simon & Schuster, to navigate your crisis and come out to the other side.