Job Losses Carry High 'Stress Tag'

THURSDAY Feb. 12, 2009 -- As each day brings more bad news on the U.S. economic crisis, the monetary cost of the mounting job losses might be far easier to measure than the mental toll on the thousands of people who suddenly find themselves out of work.

"When you lose a job, the losses are multiple," explained Michael McKee, a psychologist at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. "There's the possible loss of the financial ability to support yourself and your family if you don't have savings. There may be the loss of self-respect, and the respect of others. For some people, there's a loss of identity. There's a loss of security and daily structure. At the extreme end, there are people who lose meaning and hope."

"What I feel is different now is that a great many people are anticipating that things will get worse," McKee added. "People are talking about a depression. And, it's everyone who's worried, even people with a great deal of money and middle-class people. It's getting harder to muster some optimism."

"People might be aware of the stress of job loss, but I don't think they're aware of the impact it has on their life," said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Neuropsychiatric Institute. "Any loss results in depression and anger. Those are two things that people who've lost their job will feel."

"The one upside -- if there is one -- is that people losing a job today might feel less of a stigma about their job loss because they have so much company. It may be harder to find a job and harder to finance the things you need, but it is easier in terms of feeling less singled out, and it's easier to get extended benefits," Lieberman noted. U.S. Labor Department statistics released last week back that theory: Almost 600,000 people lost their jobs in January, bringing the nation's unemployment rate to 7.6 percent.

Those numbers have stressed out many Americans, even those who still have jobs, according to a recent USA Today story. The demand for therapists increased 40 percent from June to December, and most of that was driven by money-related fears, said Richard Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of ComPsych, the nation's largest employee-assistance mental health program. And surveys from the American Psychological Association released last fall showed nearly half of Americans said they were more stressed than a year ago, with one-third rating their stress level as "extreme."

If you're lucky enough to only experience a short-term job loss, the effect on your mind and body will likely be minimal, said stress expert, Dr. Jeff Brantley, director of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program at Duke Integrative Medicine in North Carolina.

"It's when stress becomes chronic that all systems of the body are affected," he said.

But, he added, if you're mindful of your reactions, you can go a long way toward controlling them. He explained that when you hear a fire alarm, your body tenses and your mind races, trying to figure out how to escape the danger. But, then, if someone says, "Don't worry; there's no fire; it was a false alarm," your body will begin to restore its natural balance and ease.

If you've lost your job, there are several ways you can react. One is with calm, thinking, "I can find another job, and I have money saved, so it will be all right." Or, Brantley said, you might react with "catastrophic thoughts," such as you'll never find a job again, or you'll lose your house, and that will cause a reaction within the body.

"An important element is the perception of the situation and the narrative a person assigns to it," Brantley said.

Both McKee and Brantley pointed out that the Chinese symbol for crisis contains two elements: One is danger, and the other is challenge or opportunity.

"Don't look through the danger lens only," McKee suggested. "Look through the challenge lens as well and try to figure out what you're learning from this experience, even if it's just learning how to deal with stress better."

McKee and Lieberman noted that it's not only those who've lost their jobs who are feeling stressed these days. Families of those who are unemployed, and even those who still have their jobs, are also being affected.

"Survivor's guilt is rampant in the workplace, and workplaces are much more stressful. Plus, people are supposed to feel grateful that they still have a job, even though they're being asked to do more and more," said McKee.

More information

Here's information from the U.S. Labor Department on handling sudden unemployment.

Coping With Job Loss

Experts say there are a number of things you can do to ease the stress of unemployment:

  • Tell your family about the job loss, and reassure children that it will be OK. Don't try to keep the job loss a secret, advises Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Neuropsychiatric Institute.
  • File for unemployment benefits right away, and find out about continuing your health benefits.
  • Take a few days of "me" time and pamper yourself to get into a better mindset.
  • Turn your work day into a day of looking for work.
  • Take some time for reflection, and use this opportunity to figure out what type of work might really make you happy, says Dr. Jeff Brantley, director of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program at Duke Integrative Medicine in North Carolina.
  • Don't isolate yourself. Continue to socialize. Look for volunteer opportunities, recommends Michael McKee, a psychologist at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
  • Exercise regularly and eat well to keep yourself healthy and to help stave off depression.
  • If you find that you just can't shake that anxious feeling, McKee says to practice some sort of relaxation, such as prayer, meditation or yoga. Try to change your thinking by writing down three positive affirmations every day. He said this helps you realize what your best qualities are, and helps to re-channel your thoughts in a more positive way.
  • If you find that you just can't look for a job anymore, or if people are telling you that you're irritable or angry all the time, or if you're withdrawing from people and activities you once enjoyed, or you're turning to alcohol or other substances to feel better, seek professional help.

Posted: February 2009


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