Jobless, Not Joyless

Staying on track when you're unemployed

Some Thoughts for the Unemployed on Avoiding the Trap of Social Isolation

It's important to stay socially connected.

Social isolation is a major threat to people who have been unemployed for a prolonged period.  One obvious cause is the loss of daily contact with co-workers and other professional colleagues.  Another cause arises from people withdrawing from friends and family because of embarrassment and/or the need to cut back on the expenses associated with socializing.  Certainly, there are other possible factors.

The devastating impact of social isolation was highlighted in a recent “60 Minutes” telecast entitled “Platform to Employment” which described a successful program to help long term unemployed gain re-employment.  Interviews of the participants brought home the debilitating psychological pain, which often accompanies unemployment.  Repeatedly, those interviewed referred to the loss of self-confidence and self esteem as well as feelings of shame and embarrassment.  Over time they began to view themselves as failures.  One participant shared her biggest worry; namely, for the first time in her life she feared she would not be able to take care of herself.  It is feelings such as that which cause the unemployed to slowly withdraw into themselves and become more and more socially isolated. 

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Our bodies are programmed to respond to danger – or threats to our security -- by releasing the hormones which lead to the Fight or Flight Response.  We are built to endure short periods of stress.  Prolonged stress or worry has been shown to lead to physical and mental illness.  In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert M. Sapolsky refers to research, which indicates that social isolation for prolonged periods can lead to elevated levels of stress hormones.

In today’s economy, the unemployed can be subjected to prolonged periods of worry and stress.  The resulting self-doubt and loss of confidence leads to their social withdrawal and inevitably increases their stress levels.  It therefore is critical that the unemployed seek social support, which Sapolsky recommends as an antidote to stress. 

A few years ago, I presented a workshop for at a local community college.  The workshop focused on psychological strategies that could be effective in combating the emotional storm of unemployment.  It quickly became clear that an unintended benefit of the program was providing participants with social connections.  In fact, on the last night of the workshop, the group decided to approach college administrators to request a room so that they could continue meeting on a regular basis. 

A couple of months later, I presented the same workshop to a similar group, which had been meeting at a church.  It struck me that this group was coping better with the stress of unemployment because of the support they provided each other.  One example of their efforts was a clothing drive for members to replace worn out items as well as obtain acceptable clothing for interviews.  They also canvassed local merchants who were willing to provide unemployed members with discounted services and products. 

My experience with these two groups convinced me to encourage unemployed people to find or start support groups.  To find an existing support group, consult the community activities section of your local newspaper, or look into nearby faith organizations.  I have found these support groups to be open to anyone who is interested, regardless of religious affiliation.

If you want to start a group, a faith organization, community college, or volunteer fire department is a good place to start looking for free space.  Topics can range from helping one another with resumes, to providing job leads, to discussing strategies for salary negotiation, how to explain gaps in your resume, or how to handle tough interview questions.  Material need not be prepared in advance.  My bet is that you will be amazed at how many really good suggestions can be inspired by people of like minds.

John L. Manni, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist practicing in Spring House, Pennsylvania.

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