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Positive Steps to Take After Losing Your Job

Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, Psy.D.

Plenty of people fantasize about the day they can waltz into the boss’s office and happily say, “I quit.” In that scenario, they’ve most likely snagged a new job, reached retirement age, or have achieved a level of financial stability that allows them to pursue their passion or hobby. But when leaving a job isn’t a voluntary decision, panic, grief, feelings of hopelessness, and sometimes, depression often replaces an optimistic outlook.

During October 2019, more than 2.8 million Americans were unemployed due to job loss, according to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics. People lose positions for a variety of reasons, from across-the-board layoffs to selective cutbacks to performance issues. In some situations, companies provide little or no explanation for an employee’s termination. No matter the reason behind the event, the reaction to the loss of a job is most likely the same.

coping with the reality of job loss

Grief is normal

“Job loss is one of the most life-changing experiences one ever faces,” says licensed mental health therapist Fred M. Riley. “Its negative impact on individuals is exceeded only by the loss of a loved one or a family breakup.”

Most mental health professionals liken the pain and trauma of job loss to the grief experienced after a death or divorce. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her groundbreaking 1969 book On Death and Dying, described grief as five distinct stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In the years since the book’s debut, Kubler-Ross and others have explained that these grief stages aren’t always experienced in the same order, and some people may only go through two or three of them during their grief process.

In terms of losing a job, though, denial is a common initial reaction. Even as you’re packing up your office, desk, or locker, you might tell yourself your termination was simply a mistake, and HR is going to stop you and give your old job back. Maybe you think the loss is a blessing in disguise; you were miserable anyway, and there’s bound to be someone out there just waiting for your resume or job application to cross their desk. They say that when one door closes, another door opens. You might feel a wave of relief; now you’ll finally have time to write that novel or screenplay!

It doesn’t take long for reality and its accompanying negative thoughts to reappear, though. You may quickly realize this is not just a loss of a job, but also a loss of income. These losses lead to embarrassment, doubt, and other self-esteem issues. If your family depends on your paycheck, you wonder how they’ll survive, or how they’ll handle this news. These negative emotions might turn into anger toward your coworkers, former boss, or maybe to anyone who dares cross your path.

Understanding job loss depression

Denial and anger are commonly referred to as the “information and communication” stages of grief. The next stage, bargaining, sometimes occurs in tandem with these. You’re still processing what happened, trying to sort through your next steps, and simply coming to terms with your new state of being. In an hour of desperation, it’s not uncommon to bargain with God or your higher power, praying that you’ll be a better person, go to church more, or work harder if only you are granted a new job or opportunity.

All of these reactions are entirely normal after losing a job. For many people, especially those in the United States, a job is not merely a source of income or security. It’s a career or even a calling. For some, a job provides a sense of purpose and self-worth. Losing a job seems like not only a setback but a personal rejection and blow to the ego. When you’re in these depths of self-doubt, it’s difficult to extricate your own identity from your previous job. It’s at this stage that you may become susceptible to depression.

Sometimes it’s challenging to transition from the 9-to-5 routine a full-time employee to a new role as a job seeker. Perhaps your job loss has meant rearranging finances, so regular indulgences like a morning latte or lunches with friends are no longer an option. Even the process of applying for new jobs, submitting applications and resumes, personalizing cover letters, and putting on your best face for an interview with a potential employer can be exhausting. When the job search goes on and on with no results, despair can quickly take over.

The longer a person remains unemployed after a job loss, the more likely they are to report signs of depression or poor psychological well-being. A 2014 Gallup poll found that one in five Americans who were unemployed for a year or more were treated for depression. This statistic is almost double the rate of those unemployed for five weeks or less. It’s also double the rate of those with full-time employment.

Working through the stages

Throughout your job hunt, it’s essential to stay aware of the symptoms of mental health conditions like depression. In addition to feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness, you might experience fatigue, irritability, insomnia, changes in appetite, or loss of interest in things that once interested you. In the most severe cases, suicidal thoughts or behaviors could creep in.

The best way to deal with depression is to seek help from a licensed counselor or other mental health professional. A good therapist can help you understand that what you’re feeling is acceptable, and completely normal. Together you’ll explore ways to work through your depression and move forward. Perhaps your therapy will be complemented with antidepressant medication to reduce your symptoms.

No matter what the course of action, there are still things you can do on your own during this transition that will help you adjust to your new state of employment. Acceptance, the last stage of grief, is your goal. Acceptance doesn’t mean you won’t have another day when you feel down or be suddenly happy that you lost your job.

There will be times when you’ll have a heart-stopping or tearful flashback of the day you were fired or received your layoff notice. Or perhaps a TV program might lead to reminiscing about talking about the show the next day with your former coworkers. Maybe your anger flares when you compare your first unemployment compensation disbursement to your previous biweekly paycheck.

Although these emotions may be similar to earlier stages of grief, this doesn’t mean you’re regressing in your progress and healing. Acceptance differs from these other stages in that you know how to deal with and overcome these feelings, and they don’t overtake your life. Acceptance is like a fog lifting; you’re able to see these reactions for what they are and get past them.

Bridging the gap

Working with a counselor will help you to reach the acceptance stage and beyond. One benefit of sharing your experiences with a mental health professional is learning to think objectively about what’s changing in your life. You should understand that your job loss is only a temporary setback, not something that should have a permanent negative impact. Your old job didn’t define your identity, just as your unemployment does not change who you are.

Your therapist can help you to establish new, healthy habits to help you cope as well as develop new non-work routines. Many people use their time away from work to start an exercise regime. There’s no need to add the expense of a gym membership; walking in a local park, running through your neighborhood, or practicing yoga with the help of a You-Tube instructor are all no-cost physical activities. Exercise is not only healthy, strength-building, and relaxing; it also helps to reduce mental stress, which can be a bonus.

Another therapeutic activity is journaling. Counselors often give patients journaling assignments as an element of therapy. Writing down your feelings about your job loss and state of mind is a constructive way to evaluate and even change your perspective. You may use your journaling exercise as a forum to establish new goals or timelines, perhaps related to your job search.

Coping with the reality of job loss

Although your initial reaction to losing a job may be to find another one as soon as possible, many experts recommend taking some extra time to adjust. One option is to think of your grieving period like you would a company-provided vacation; give yourself a definite amount of “time off” before beginning your job hunt. Whether this time is two weeks, six months, or a year depends on several factors, including your financial situation.

For some, being without some income for too long may not be an option at all. Maybe while you’re looking for your next job or full-time career, you could take on a part-time job or side gig to keep money coming in. Any accomplishments or new skills you gain with this new work will only enhance your resume, and the people you might meet as you explore new opportunities might even be the key to finding your next career.

Accepting your new normal is easier when you have an active support group of friends and family members. Many people isolate themselves after a job loss; they’re embarrassed, angry, or want time to cry or grieve in solitude. Sharing your experience or feelings with others might help you understand that you’re not alone. Many, many people have lost jobs in the United States for a variety of reasons. Learning how they grieved, adapted, and moved on could give you the strength you need to find peace within your situation and success in the form of your next position.

Exploring your next phase

Cliches aside, sometimes a job loss actually can be a good thing. Having time to work through your grief also allows you to think about what you want to do with the rest of your life. Perhaps you were terminated or laid off from a job with a grueling schedule or a demanding boss. Maybe you were doing repetitive work that didn’t give you any room to demonstrate your creativity. Reflecting on what you particularly disliked or enjoyed about your last job can give you a better sense of what to look for in your next one.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to work from home or on a flexible schedule. If so, think about skills you might have developed during your former career that could make that dream a reality. Talent in areas like social media marketing, graphic design, writing, customer service, or bookkeeping is perfect for freelance or remote work.

If you have a few years of experience under your belt, maybe you can leverage your strengths to begin a consulting career. Perhaps start with a few remote or freelance assignments or establish a small consulting client base and see where it takes you. You might find that you enjoy your freelance, remote, or consulting lifestyle and explore ways to transform your temporary gigs into a profitable, long-term career.

The bottom line is that a job ending doesn’t have to mean the end of your happiness, self-esteem, or well-being. Understanding the stages of grief as they pertain to job loss will help you to realize that what you’re experiencing is entirely reasonable. Although you may temporarily feel angry or hopeless, there truly is a light at the end of the tunnel for you. You’re not the only person who has been through this, and you won’t be the last.

A licensed professional counselor or therapist who you can find on WithTherapy can help you come to terms with your loss and your grief and find appropriate methods to get to a healthier state of mind.

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