How To Handle Sudden Unemployment

Illustration: Sam Woolley/GMG

As a person who recently lost their job, I’ve quickly had to adapt to a routine of unemployment.

Granted, being laid off as a journalist is a little different than other sectors in that you can immediately start to pick up freelance work. But it’s still easy to fall into a malaise of being overwhelmed by negative emotion while simultaneously trying to create structure and figure out your next steps.

During this murky time, Dr Melanie Greenberg, who works as a psychologist and is the author of The Stress-Proof Brain, recommends keeping your focus on two main tasks: Looking for a new job or career path, and attending to your emotional and psychological well-being.

Below, strategies for fending off despair, keeping yourself out of debt, and finding a new gig as soon as possible.

Look After Your Mental Health

If you find yourself suddenly and unceremoniously laid off, says Greenberg, planning out your future job prospects is obviously a key step.

“Figure out to how rebuild, which may involve looking for work and taking a step back and looking at the big picture of what you can do — sometimes you have to have a couple irons in the fire,” she tells us.

That said, this is also a time to be particularly attentive to your mental health. “You need time for that and you need to deal with the emotional consequences so you don’t get depressed,” says Greenberg. “Find time for exercise and finding social groups, finding volunteer activities.”

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Dr Greenberg also recommended meditation, which can help focus your mind and make sure you are not consumed with trying to “deal with things out of your control”.

(Rather than shelling out for classes at a time when your income is unsteady, you can start out with one of the numerous free or cheap meditation apps currently available.)

Being unemployed can also be a good time to work on your personal relationships and reinforce your self-esteem.

“What do you feel proud of in your own personal values? Try to think of personal qualities and find people who will validate those qualities,” Dr Greenberg said.

“Sometimes people isolate themselves. They don’t want to tell people about it. That can make you more depressed.”

In my personal experience, for instance, I’ve found it helpful to go to as many social gatherings and networking events as possible, and have volunteered time to help a close friend open up a gallery space in Brooklyn.

Dr Greenberg added that while it’s important to stay engaged, you should also feel free to set boundaries about what you want to discuss about your personal life and can have set responses such as, “I’ve been exploring a few opportunities,” when asked about your job search.

It’s also important to keep in mind that this is a time of general anxiety for many people who still have full-time work.

“Certain industries are getting a bit harder; the nature of work is changing. It’s globalisation,” Dr Greenberg said.

You can help to manage some of these feelings through working on your willingness to tolerate anxiety when you are doing things such as meeting new people at networking events or informational interviews.

Part of this is simply being aware that you will always have some nervous feelings when doing things such as speaking publicly, and then accepting that it’s normal, and having confidence that you can do a good job at something even if you have some butterflies in your stomach.

Create a Routine

Long before you have a new job with new hours, it can be enormously helpful to create some structure to your days, which can help you strike the balance between mental health exercises, doing freelance work, and looking for new work.

“I think it’s very important to make a schedule as if you’re working, [but] it doesn’t have to be nine to five,” Dr Greenberg said. “It helps you feel a little more in control. It helps for depression to have things to focus on.”

I’ve found it helpful to stick my previous life as much as possible. I try to get up with my wife at about 7AM and then get chores done in the morning before setting up sections of time to do freelance work, look for new gigs, and keep up with local news.

I also dress the same as I did for my full-time job and work in our small office space to create as much of a professional-feeling atmosphere as possible.

It may help to digitise your productivity with time-management apps such as focus booster, which helps you concentrate on specific tasks and build in time for bathroom or email breaks, or Google Calendar, which you can use to block out your day and set some times to get a break (“9AM-12PM job searching”, “12PM to 1PM lunch”, “1PM to 3PM freelance work”, “4PM to 5PM gym”, and so on).

Another option: I have a successful writer friend who said she uses the website e.ggtimer.com to set countdown clocks so she can stay focused on specific work. (This is a variation on the classic Pomodoro technique, which many people swear by.) You could, say, set a 30-minute timer for updating your website, making sure you don’t get distracted while you’re listing and linking to your recent accomplishments.

Set Small, Concrete Goals

Within your newly established routine, it’s helpful to have achievable daily and weekly goals. It can obviously feel overwhelming to have a big-picture plan to find a new job or change careers, but breaking that down into steps, such as working on your resume or networking with at least five people on LinkedIn, can help.

So your day could be broken into several blocks of time such as reaching out to contacts, researching open positions, and taking time to stay healthy by doing yoga at home. Each of those activities could become an action item checked off your daily to-do list.

From there, your weekly goal could be turn your outreach into at least a few scheduled coffee meetings, and to apply to at least three new jobs.

And it’s good, too, to set rewards for completing a task. If you’ve spent a few hours contacting potential employers or contacts, then maybe watch an episode of your favourite show on Netflix before moving on to your next goal.

That said, while goals can be crucial, it’s also important to leave your days flexible enough to make room for something like a job interview, says Dallas-based financial planner Katie Brewer, CFP.

“If you’re looking for jobs you don’t have as much control [about when an interviewer may want to meet],” Brewer added.

She said it could be good to put more emphasis on your weekly goals, such as applying to five new jobs, in case you need to rearrange your schedule one day to have a meeting. There’s no sense in ignoring a potential opportunity because you’ve set a too-rigid schedule for yourself.

Reevaluate Your Finances

The three big financial tasks you need to do after losing a job, according to Brewer, are to quickly evaluate your health benefit options, adjust your budget, and try not to tap into your retirement account.

There’s the understandable immediate reaction of “freaking out and laying in bed,” Brewer said, but that can keep you from making decisions on things you may need to do within the first 30 days of unemployment.

This period of uncertainty is also a “good time for somebody to list out what their wants versus their needs are,” Brewer tells us. “You have to put [expenses] in one of those two categories.”

If there is something you feel falls in between, like going to the gym to stay in shape and reduce stress, then maybe think about switching to a cheaper community centre or simply just going for a jog around your neighbourhood in the morning.

The last thing is to avoid cashing out your retirement fund.

“Put that as the very very very last thing you do,” Brewer says. “[Leaving it alone] is really easy to do and really hard to undo.”

Ultimately, all of these pieces fit together; managing our anxiety and setting manageable goals can help us avoid making rash decisions such as cashing out our retirement, and being on top of things in those areas sets us up well to work towards a new job or career.

And more generally, actively planning your schedule and working in time to attend to your mental health can help you cope and thrive in the new gig economy.

“It’s kind of difficult times [economically]. We are facing new challenges,” says Greenberg. “Trying to learn how to adapt is the most important thing.”


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