Allyson Johnson (a pseudonym) took a deep breath. She’d just been asked a tough question by the recruiter sitting before her: “What would your last boss say your greatest skills were?”
Johnson spoke slowly and deliberately. “He would probably say that I was organized. . . analytical. . . a team player. . . and although I have great leadership skills. . . he probably would not acknowledge that.” Johnson remembers her heartbeat beginning to race, her speaking pace becoming more hurried.
“My former boss was not really one to give compliments,” she explained. “And in fact he was rather critical… and at times, condescending. Well, I mean, he had some personal issues and misdirected his . . .” Johnson glanced up at the recruiter, who now looked like a deer in headlights. Her confidence shriveled as she realized she had said too much and become too emotional. “I can kiss this job goodbye,” she thought miserably.
Johnson’s situation is one that resonates with many. Just a week earlier, she’d lost her position because of a restructuring of roles within her business unit. She had convinced herself that she was not fazed by this and that no one was to blame. Johnson decided to get back in the saddle and jump into interview mode right away.
What she didn’t confront was the emotional baggage she was carrying, particularly her resentment toward her former manager and toward the company’s leadership in general. This anger made its way to the surface in what started out as a model interview. Johnson had not yet closed the door behind her so that a new one could open.
Reaching closure is essential when transitioning jobs, especially if the departure from a previous position was difficult. It helps tremendously to avoid playing the victim – though, let’s face it, many of us feel exactly like victims when we’ve lost our jobs. But “victim” is a job description no employer is looking to fill – not when a potential employer is looking, as all are, for signs of competence and confidence.
The reality is that the majority of employees face a job loss at some point in their career, often because of circumstances beyond their control. Restructures, mergers, acquisitions, global sourcing, competitive cost management – there are a hundred reasons, and they all result in casualties. Being propelled into a job search can be a rude awakening and can bring on anxiety, stress, and related emotions. Many of us closely identify ourselves with what we do for a living. When our job is threatened or taken away, a significant component of our life is gone, too, and we can lose track of who we are and even why we’re here.
Acknowledging Your Emotions
Depending on the job loss circumstances and the individual, emotions may range from relief to rage. Going through a job loss is somewhat synonymous with working through the stages of grief. Although one may not experience all of these emotions, or in the order described, the typical ones that will surface include:
“How could this have happened? This doesn’t make sense at all.”
“This isn’t happening. Any minute now, someone will send out a clarifying memo. I don’t need to do anything differently.”
“Why me? Especially with all of these other #@%!!’s working here. This is evidence of a conspiracy!”
“I can turn this around. . . If I just finish this project and don’t create waves, they will give me my job back.”
“Oh my gosh, this is real! I can’t handle this now. It’s too overwhelming. I’ll just sleep or eat or drink my way through it.”
“Oh well, this is real; but I am feeling a bit more energetic and focused about what I need to do next. Life goes on.”
And then you feel yourself getting angry all over again! This time of post-job loss is the kind of period for which the term “roller-coaster emotions” was coined. You may go back and forth among the stages listed here, and fluctuate just as widely, up and down, in your moods. Whatever you feel, acknowledge it, remind yourself that this is completely normal, to be expected . . . and only temporary. . . . and then do something.
Vent and Connect with Others
Find individuals who you feel can offer a safe haven to whom you can express your emotions – the feel-good emotions, the lukewarm emotions, and the “low-down dirty” negative emotions. You need to surface and discharge them all. Reach out to family, close friends, and to colleagues you respect. At this time, they probably should not include any prospective employers or anyone you may want to speak on your behalf as you engage in a job search. Stick to people who would help, but aren’t likely to be the object of your job search. Be mindful to spread the venting around, so that you are not inundating one friend who you may need help from later in your job search.
Once you have been able to vent, begin spreading the word about your interest in finding a new position. Share your resume with any and all who might help, either with information or leads. Your operative truisms are: There is power in numbers, and networking is the gift that keeps on giving.
Maintain Emotional Stability and Reduce Stress
Job loss is near the top of the list of stress triggers; and stress can have a debilitating effect on you physically, mentally, and spiritually. Humans are hardwired to generate a flight-or-fight response to stressors in our environment. This translates into increased adrenaline in the bloodstream, a higher heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and, if unaddressed, can result in adverse conditions ranging from anxiety and pain to diagnosable trouble, such as circulatory problems, digestive problems, inability to sleep, decreased immunity, and more.
The good news is that we can take action to reduce stress. Simple strategies that work if you work them include exercising regularly (physical activity eases muscular and nervous tension), eating healthfully, using deep-breathing techniques and progressive relaxation to reduce tension, getting a massage, engaging in activities you consider fun or creative, focusing on a larger cause through volunteer work, meditating and praying, and learning to use positive visualization and positive affirmations. If possible, take a short trip that removes you from your environment and use the time to relax, recharge, and reflect. If a trip is not feasible, create a routine to replace your daily work schedule to give yourself an essential sense of predictability and progress. The bonus in these stress-reduction strategies is that they help to raise your self-esteem, as well.
Find Ways to Maintain Financial Stability
If your position was eliminated because of a restructure or other organizational drivers, you may be eligible for a severance package that can provide you with a cushion to land on as you take some time to reflect on your next career move. Severance packages vary greatly among organizations, with a range of offerings that includes severance pay (typically one to two weeks for each year of service, up to a threshold amount), help with finding another job within the organization, and/or outplacement or career transition services through an external vendor. These services will help you work through the job-search process, prepare your resume, practice interviewing, identify job leads, and maintain a physical work space in which to conduct your job-search activities. You will most likely need to sign a separation agreement or release to receive a severance package. This agreement essentially states that you will not hold the company liable for terminating you or disclose any trade secrets.
If you don’t have a cushion and have not voluntarily resigned from your organization, you will most likely be able to file for unemployment compensation. File within your state as soon as possible; generally two to three weeks elapse between after the first compensable week and the first benefit check. The weekly benefit amount is generally about 50 percent of the amount earned while employed, but each state sets its maximum benefit amount. Benefits are paid for up to a maximum of 26 weeks in most states.
You may need to take steps to maintain health insurance if you are not covered under your spouse or partner’s benefits. Coverage could end on your last day of employment. However, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) allows you to continue your coverage at group rates, plus a 2% administration fee. Explore this option as well as others, especially if you or insured family members have conditions requiring ongoing observation and/or treatment.
In addition, notify creditors of your situation so that you can arrange for a more flexible payment schedule. Establishing a “comfort zone” around your ability to pay bills and meet financial obligations will enable you to view your future in a much more positive light.
Look at Your Job Loss as an Opportunity
Think holistically about your options and how they fit into your life plan. Don’t have a life plan? Shame on you! But you are not alone. Most people are in “go mode” through so much of their waking hours that they seldom take time to reflect; nor do they typically feel they have the energy to plan. Think of all of the things that you have wanted to do but never pursued in all aspects of your life – not just the work-related ones, either, but whatever is tucked away in your hopes-and-dreams category. This could be the time to dust them off and see if there’s life in them. And don’t forget the things you now have time to do while you are between jobs: spend more time with family members, take a short trip, etc.
Rebuild Your Self-confidence
Review your accomplishments and remind yourself of the value you have created in the past and can continue to create in the future. Take this a step further and do small things every day to give yourself a sense of accomplishment and completion. Find a small project to finish around the house, for example, or commit to exercising daily.
Use visualization to picture yourself in successful interview situations, thinking through, in detail, how you would respond to various questions. This technique is used by many star athletes as they get ready to perform.
Get Ready, Get Set, Go!
OK: Now you may be ready for that interview. When you take time to understand your individual reaction to a job loss and how you have internalized it, you can give yourself a break, de-stress, reflect, recharge, and get help where you need it. You increase your probability of landing gracefully . . . where you want . . . and with a spring!