Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Trauma of Extended Unemployment

Getting fired from your job is traumatic. Remaining jobless for an extended period of time compounds the trauma. The more time you are unemployed the more you will doubt yourself, the more you will start thinking that it is you, not them, who is responsible for your diminished state.

Yet, getting a new job is not necessarily an instant cure. As Joann Lublin reported in the Wall Street Journal, even a new job will not immediately erase the after-effects of the trauma. Link here.

The article is certainly timely. As more and more people spend more and more time unemployed, they are finding, when they get a new job, that they bring with them a recurrent anxiety about losing the new job, a lack of confidence, and an inability to fit in to the new culture.

Who should these people turn to? According to Lublin, they most often turn to coaches. Coaches help them to orient themselves in relation to the new job, explain what they should and should reveal about the old job, guide them to learning about the new corporate culture, and help them rehearse for potentially awkward situations.

Coaching helps these people to effect something that is, for many of them, a difficult and awkward transition. It does not label them neurotic; it does not consign them to the couch; and it does not pretend that they need to recover the memory of past trauma and express their repressed feelings.

For the purposes of this blog, these are fundamental issues. The contemporary approach has fully overcome the Freudian model where repressed trauma produces neurosis. It does not advise people to get in touch with their feelings. It does not assume that they are psychologically disabled, but that they do not know how to transition.

Many of those who have undergone the trauma of extended unemployment were never before out of a job. They never suffered the indignity of lying around the house with nothing to do. They never experienced the pained expressions on the faces of friends and family when their plight became known. And they were never in the position where they could not support their families as they would wish.

Extended unemployment produces feelings of anomie and rejection. When everyone around you is busy at work and you are not... anomie would be a normal reflection of your condition.

But then, the longer you are unemployed, the more your out-of-work routine will come to feel like the norm. And once it feels normal to play video games and watch soap operas, the transition to the new job will become increasingly difficult. First, you have to recalibrate your habits. Second, you need to have a way to answer the inevitable questions about what you have been doing these past several months.

Moreover, as Lublin suggests, the more painful the experience of unemployment, the less like you are to throw yourself fully into the new job. The more you reorganize your life around the new job, the more pain you will feel if you get fired. As many trauma victims know all too well, the only way you can be sure of never suffering the trauma of job loss is not getting a new job.

Is there a way to diminish the trauma of extended unemployment? I for one would recommend that when you are out of work, act as though you have a job. Get up in the morning at the time you would if you were working. Maintain the morning routines you had when you were working. Put on a suit and tie, or other work-appropriate outfit, eat your everyday breakfast, and go to your home office. Then, set about the doing the job of trying to get a job.

As I mentioned before, I got this idea from an article I read about former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain. When Thain was fired from his job, he maintained his habit of getting up, getting dressed for work, and going to his home office. Some people ridiculed this tactic, but I, for one, found it eminently sensible. Link here.


Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah.... I know all about this. I got out of the Active Duty Army in 1995 after my Dad and Grandad died (the last of my family). I was freshley divorced. I thought I had a good shot at a job: Electrical Engineer; former officer with good reviews and security clearance....

Forget it. By 2000, I had worked for 3 small defense companies who each, in turn, went out of business. I had been unemployed more than I had been employed for 5 years.

Instead of going mad, I drank a lot and learned to play the bagpipe. Really. I play semi-professionally now.

I couldn't do the "get up and go to fake work" thing. It felt too much like Michael Douglas in "Falling Down". I assiduously pursued work, practiced the bagpipe and worked out.

My current boss of 10 years told me he was apprehensive of hiring me 'cuz he though I was "a job hopper". I assured him that every company I worked for was out of business and I rode the pony into the ground. I am currently riding the pony into the ground. Again.

I've never gotten over it. My salary is still below that of my luckier peers. I've never put a picture of my family or any personal items in my cubical of 10 years. Sometimes people have the bad manners to ask about this and I tell them, laughing: "Don't drag my family into this!"

I have a great job as a software systems engineer. I've made a name for myself in my field. I've very good at what I do, but Obama has pledged to kill my successful and much needed defense program.

I've never known an instant of job-security in my life. It has been "root hog or die!" my entire professional life. It wears on me. Drinking is a great comfort. Working out is a great comfort. Playing the bagpipe is a great comfort and thank God for ambien. I have a wonderful family, but I won't be able to support them after Obama kills my successful, and much needed defense program. I have savings 'cuz now I'm like one of those old "Great Depression" survivors about thrift and savings.

Still, it's gonna get as ugly as it can get....


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