Anxiety Files

Simple and powerful techniques for coping with anxiety and worry.

How to Support Someone Who Is Unemployed: Seven Steps to Making a Difference

Seven things to do to give support.

Many of us will have family or friends who are going through a difficult time during the period of unemployment. In a review of the research on couples with one unemployed spouse there was no direct relationship between unemployment and marital dissatisfaction (Barling, 1990). This seems counter-intuitive since we might think that unemployment would lead to greater conflicts in a marriage. However, unemployment can also lead to a recognition that you are lucky to have the support that you do-and some marriages can actually get stronger. So, it depends on how you handle it.

I've been writing about ways that you can handle your unemployment: Unemployed and Ruminating: Seven Steps to Turning it Around; When Self-Criticism is True: Turn Self-Criticism into Self-Correction; The Shame of Unemployment; Facing Unemployment: Ten Steps to Handling Your Unemployment Anxiety and I have discussed this on a variety of NPR radio programs across the country (click here). The enormous interest in the media on coping with unemployment reflects not only our recognition that millions of people are out of work and will continue to be unemployed, but that unemployment can be psychologically devastating. You may be reading this because you are unemployed---but also because you have a family member or friend who is unemployed.

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How can you help?

1. Talk about it and validate it
Many unemployed people feel ashamed of their situation. They often believe that others look down on them, think of them as a burden and don't want to hear about what is going on. They also may feel, "You don't know what I am going through". As a friend or family member it's important to make space and time for opening up. Simply saying, "I know this is a rough time for you and I want you to know I am here for you. If you need to talk, please feel free to talk with me. Maybe this is a time I can really be on your side."

2. Reach out
Many people who are unemployed feel ashamed and feel like a burden. They often say, "People don't want to be around me". But it may be that the unemployed person is isolating himself or herself. Take the initiative---call them up. Yes, use the phone. The personal contact on the phone matters. And then suggest that you get together and have dinner, a drink, coffee, or take a walk. Reach out and connect.

3. Don't blame
One of the worst things to do is to blame the person for being unemployed. Bringing up past "mistakes" ("You got yourself fired") or labeling the person ("You can't keep a job") will only make matters much worse. This is a rough time and they need your support-not additional negativity. Even if you were right in your criticism, what good will it do now.

4. Don't nag
Although you want your friend or partner to be more active in searching for a job or getting busy, nagging and complaining only makes matters worse. "Get off your butt and start looking!" is not a motivational enhancer. Instead, try the following:

5. Reward every step forward
You get a lot further by noticing the positives, labeling them and being a cheer-leader. Rather than nag and criticize, notice the positive steps your friend or partner is making and say, "That was terrific that you made those calls today" or "That was wonderful that you sent out your resume". Also reward activities that are simply healthy behaviors-like exercise, seeing friends, taking classes. You build confidence on positives.

6. Balance validation with problem solving
Help them realize that you know how hard it is but gently suggest that you are open to brainstorming ways of solving the problem. For example, you might say "It's a hard time and you probably feel discouraged. You're human and that's natural. But if you want we can brainstorm together and think about strategies and things to do. Let me know if that would be helpful."

7. Put things in perspective
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal 26 % of people employed today had been unemployed in the past three years. Realize that this could happen to you. But people do get jobs and people move forward. Helping your friend put things in perspective is important. This doesn't mean that you invalidate what she is feeling or trivialize the problem she is facing. It simply means that there is a lot of life now and in the future. For example, one man who was unemployed realized in talking about this that he had a terrific wife, kids who loved him, savings, job skills, and a desire to work. We also examined the poverty of his childhood that he overcame. He said, "You know, I have overcome worse things before".

Keep in mind that this period is a hard time for your partner or friend. It's time for you to step up to the plate. And if you do it the right way, you will make this the greatest opportunity in your relationship.

To learn more about how to handle depression and to support someone going through a hard time, see my latest book Beat the Blues Before They Beat You.

Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., is the author of Anxiety Free,The Worry Cure and Beat the Blues. He is Clinical Professor of Psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical School. more...

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