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Preserving Mental Health During Unemployment

How to stay grounded when your job is spirited away

25 million unemployed
The unemployment rate is now close to 10%

Our nation is facing unprecedented rates of unemployment as well as job insecurity and dissatisfaction. Recent figures put the national jobless rate at close to 10%, not including those who left the workforce or those staying in unsatisfying jobs. In a culture that values the work role and external signs of status, wealth and achievement above all else. it is not surprising that rates of anxiety and mental disorders are increasing and that more prescriptions for anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications are being written every day.

Effects on Communities

http://www.drmelaniegreenberg.netForeclosures affect the property values of surrounding homes and lack of money for home maintenance can lead to neglect. Public schools that rely on charitable contributions from parents for enrichment activities, aides, and additional study materials may be forced to offer less well-rounded educational programs and special needs services when parents can no longer afford these contributions. Parents who have to work more will cut classroom or fundraising volunteer activities. In households where one spouse was the major breadwinner, spouses who had chosen to stay home with young kids or work part-time may have to go back to work full-time. Families may lose homes or have to relocate because of the change in financial status.

Effects on Relationships

A spouse's job loss can also put strain on a marriage. Spouses may blame each other for not cutting spending, not going back to work soon enough, or not foreseeing this happening and finding another position in time. In addition, many people deal with stress by increasing alcohol intake or converting stress into anger, potentially leading to increases in spousal arguments, domestic violence, health and legal problems. Increasing financial stress or transition also exacerbates pre-existing marital and relationship problems. Stress, increased responsibilities, and obsessing over finding a job can decrease desire and sexual interest. Increased stress can also increase marital arguments or lead to lack of communication if one or both spouses shuts down & withdraws emotionally. Job loss can evoke shame and regret, which can lead to depression, with further negative relationship impact. Lack of money for babysitters or date nights can decrease opportunities for having fun together, which is a key element of romance.

man depressed after losing job
Chronic unemployment can have devastating effects on mental health

Effects on Individuals

Research studies have shown that job loss can take a psychological and biological toll as well, leading to depression, anxiety disorders, increased somatic symptoms, such as fatigue or headaches, and higher rates of medical illness. This toll may be worse for men, who are socialized to evaluate their self-worth in terms of their financial and career success. Suicide attempts also rise with unemployment.

In today's environment, a long period of job search is the norm, particularly for older workers. A 2003 study found that 10% of those losing a job were reemployed after one week, 25% after one month, while another 25% were still unemployed 6 months later. These figures are even higher today. Even when workers do get reemployed, they often accept jobs with lower salaries and less opportunities for advancement.

Many psychological variables are adversely affected by unemployment, including perceived control, belief in one's own competence or self-efficacy, self-esteem, identity, life satisfaction, and sense of meaning and purpose in life. Research studies are mixed as to whether these effects are temporary or long-term. A study by Clark, Diener and colleagues in 2003 found that life satisfaction among unemployed did not return to pre-employment levels. On the other hand, a 2010 study by George Bonnano and colleagues at Columbia University, examining a large, representative sample of German workers, found that more than two thirds of workers coped well with job loss and most people returned to pre-employment life satisfaction levels within one year.

Research on Adjustment to Job Loss

What factors affect adjustment to job loss? A recent meta-analysis, which statistically summarized the results of many well-designed studies found that the following factors were most related to mental health during unemployment:

Factors Predicting Worse Mental Health

  • Work Role Centrality - Evaluating one's work role to be a more central aspect of identity
  • Social Undermining - Criticism and negative judgments by one's spouse, family members, friends & colleagues
  • Financial Strain - Perceptions of not being able to meet one's immediate financial obligations
  • Stress Appraisal - Seeing the unemployment experience as highly stressful and negative

Factors Predicting Better Mental Health

  • Positive Core Self-Evaluation - one's sense of oneself as worthy or unworhy, competent or incompetent, having failed or having succeeded.
  • Time Structure - Having routines and projects to structure one's time
  • Re-employment Expectancy - Having more positive expectations of finding re-employment

Staying mentally healthy and positive in the face of repeated disappointments and uncertainty is certainly a difficult task. Yet this appears to be one of the keys to finding re-employment and regaining life satisfaction. Core Self-Evaluation had the largest association with mental health of the variables measured and far outweighed demographic factors and behavioral factors such as job search strategies and amount of effort expected. In my next post, I will discuss concrete coping strategies that unemployed people can apply to maintain hope and find resilience during this difficult period.

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, life coach, and expert on thriving in difficult circumstances. She is also a professional speaker and media consultant.

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