By Anja van den Berg
Losing a job is deeply shocking. Yes, it is a loss of livelihood, but the emotional impact goes beyond financial stress.
“Perhaps most significant is the impact of job loss on our identity or sense of self,” says Sally Maitlis, professor of organisational behaviour. “For many, work is not only a large part of our waking hours but also who we feel we are.”
This rings particularly true if you had a job that you love or one in a career built over the years.
Maitlis says that job losses that come with the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to strike particularly hard at people’s sense of identity because some industries will never recover. Others will reappear in a very different form.
Moving from the shock and grief of job loss to the hope of new possibilities takes time, effort and intention. But it can also give time and freedom towards positive change and growth.
In her research, Maitlis found that those who successfully created new futures for themselves tended to move through their grief and growth in three phases:
- Process and regulate your emotions
It’s hard to think straight when you feel flooded with emotion. Don’t make any rash decisions – regulating your emotional state is a vital first step. “That means managing your emotions, so they become less intense but not completely numbed out,” Maitlis explains. Talk to a confidant or someone supportive and consider consulting a psychologist or life coach. Alternatively, or adjunctly, practice mindfulness and engage in physical exercise. Choose activities that reduce the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in your brain that surge when the body is functioning in fight or flight mode.
If you are someone who deals with bad news by shrugging it off and keeping busy, give yourself a chance to process the shock. Acknowledge emotions that are under the surface and don’t push feelings away. Otherwise, they often continue to influence you subconsciously.
- Invest time to make sense of your situation
The search for meaning is intrinsic to recovery from trauma and crisis. The process can cultivate a sense of control in your situation – especially if what has happened to you takes place in the context of a much bigger crisis. From a more emotionally regulated mind, you can now start to figure out what has happened, why, and what it means for you. Psychologists call this sense-making.
Research shows all sense-making are not created equally. When people focus on their mistakes and what went wrong, they limit their capacity for growth and stay stuck where they are. If your sense-making is underpinned by a relentless self-interrogation and engaging in what-if thinking, you will derail your future. However, when people focus on how they can rework and extend elements of their prior experiences, they create the basis for growth. When you reframe your personal and professional qualities as evidence of your potential, new possibilities emerge.
- Experiment and integrate
Sense-making is more than a way of thinking. It will crystallise in you as sequences of small (and not always deliberate) experiments through which you incrementally create your new work life. This can include helping a friend, volunteering, developing a former hobby, attending a talk, or agreeing to an interim role. As you continue to reflect on your experiences of these new activities, you will be more likely to see the forced transition as a catalyst for a long-needed change. Moreover, your identity will be deeper, more robust and expanded by these challenging experiences.
Ask yourself questions like: Which parts of myself do I want to develop? How much did I enjoy that job? How well did it fit in with the other demands and interests I have? What would I like to be different about my next job?
For all that is painful about losing a job, it forces us to reconsider the status quo. If you have lost your job during this time of unprecedented challenge, take heart. Now may be an unanticipated opportunity to review what you want and take stock of who you are. You may be standing at the beginning of a path towards a job more satisfying than the one you lost. Reflect on your situation and analyse what it reveals. Then, use those conclusions to construct a narrative of your career and yourself that provides a springboard for your next steps.
Harvard Business Review:
McKinsey & Company: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/a-leaders-guide-communicating-with-teams-stakeholders-and-communities-during-covid-19