In April 2020, the US unemployment rate reached 14.8%, the highest rate ever observed. While that percentage has declined in recent months, many Americans are still struggling to cope with unemployment. Even as the new year approaches, it’s common for psychologists to see patients who are dealing with mental illness tied to pandemic-related job loss.
Anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions frequently plague their clients, who may or may not use appropriate coping strategies. How clients perceive and deal with job loss directly impacts their mental and, often, physical health. Luckily, there are a few healthy psychological strategies for coping with job loss, too.
Self-blame or denial
Of course, no psychologist would recommend self-blame or denial as an adaptive coping strategy. However, unemployed people with high levels of anxiety often implement these maladaptive strategies to cope with their situation. Eventually, they can lead to substance abuse and other unhealthy habits that are a detriment to their physical and mental health.
Although reviewing past actions to determine what went wrong can be beneficial, self-blame isn’t productive in the long run. Denial can be just as destructive. While it does give people time to adjust to job loss, this coping mechanism can interfere with their ability to recover and regain employment. Since both denial and self-blame come naturally to many people, psychologists must help their clients unlearn these behaviors and develop more adaptive coping strategies.
A job search is a relatively healthy coping strategy that patients can use to regain a sense of control when they’ve lost their jobs. By seeking out and applying for jobs, people can even boost their chances of reemployment. Active use of this strategy is related to more job offers, shorter duration of unemployment, and future job acquisition.
While it can produce a sense of hope, a job search can also increase psychological distress, which generally leads to more intense job-seeking behavior. The cyclical relationship between job seeking and mental health might make this coping strategy only a short-term solution to dealing with unemployment. Otherwise, long-term implementation may cause anxiety and depression, especially if they don’t succeed in finding another job soon after losing the previous one.
Unlike a job search, job devaluation is an escape-oriented coping strategy that helps the person see job loss as more of a positive experience, or at least less negative. This approach often involves persuading the patient – or helping them persuade themselves – that there are more important things in life than employment.
Aside from getting a tax break on unemployment benefits, they can appreciate having more time to spend with their family, practice self-care, or pursue their true passions. Once individuals revise their goals and attitudes to support these other priorities, they can find purpose and meaning elsewhere, and job loss doesn’t seem so detrimental. This strategy is common among long-term unemployed individuals.
Those who tire of implementing job search strategies may also reassess their values and implement a devaluation strategy instead. Once the idea of work becomes peripheral, psychological distress will likely decrease and their overall well-being will improve.
Implementing appropriate coping strategies
Various factors will determine which coping strategy is best for an unemployed individual. In most cases, personality, culture, and socioeconomic status will come into play. Is the individual a ‘glass half empty’ or ‘glass half full’ kind of person? Is it the social norm to have a job or to be unemployed? How might a person’s access to financial, relational, and instrumental support determine their ability to implement these coping strategies?
Those who have access to and implement adaptive coping skills handle crises reasonably well. Meanwhile, those who face problems of health and poverty often struggle to access and implement appropriate strategies. Psychologists should keep these considerations in mind when determining how unemployment affects people psychologically and how individuals can care for their mental health while unemployed.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.