Throughout the pandemic, losing a job has practically become a shared national trauma. Some 40 million Americans lost income at some point or another in 2020, and even though it’s a new year, the waves of layoffs are far from over. Amd there’s a special kind of devastation that comes with finding yourself losing your livelihood at the end of one year and the start of another — a time that’s supposed to be marked with joy and optimism, but that suddenly feels gloomy, and like a black pit of insecurity.
The difficulties that come with being laid off go beyond the financial; it’s not just about the money, or the unshakable anxiety that comes with not knowing how you’re going to pay your bills or eat. It’s a loss of self, of routine, of the coworkers you talked to every day. So, where do you go from here? How do you survive what could be months of being unemployed?
Step One: Know you’re not alone
Shannon, 26, Ontario
Shannon found herself unceremoniously laid off from a job in the real estate industry two days before Christmas 2019. “The reason was actually due to an act of fraud from the owners of the company,” she says matter-of-factly. “So everybody within the company found out that they were unemployed. The whole place was shutting down.”
“I was legitimately stunned,” she says. She recalls her initial thoughts, the feeling of shock that the owner could ruin the lives of so many other people. “Once the initial shock wore off, there was a tiny bit of panic. I went distinctly into overplanning mode, thinking of the what ifs, what do I need to do? I think I was panicking to avoid worrying, if that makes sense.”
“After the panic kind of wore off, there was a bit of anger and resentment,” she says. “Because it was the holiday season, and it was [the owner’s] choice to put us in this financial situation. So you feel kind of like, well, I did my part, where’s my employer to do their part?”
This initial layoff only lasted two weeks, as another company hired about half the staff of Shannon’s previous employer. But then, two months later, the pandemic came and she was laid off again. “I got double laid-off,” she says. “It definitely changed my perception. Once I left the second company, I took four or five months off and didn’t apply for another job, because whoever I was going to work for, they needed to not just see me as a placeholder.”
“I was like, why am I working so hard for someone that doesn’t respect me, when I have other passions that I could be putting all this energy into?” Instead of working for another employer, she focused all of her efforts into her jewelry studio.
“It’s hugely, hugely enjoyable. It’s always going to be a struggle with being your own boss,” she says. “But also, being that self-reliant and being able to fully commit and fully be passionate about what you’re doing is absolutely amazing.”
Her advice for anyone currently coping with a layoff is this: “I don’t wanna make it sound cheesy or anything, but it’s in the little things, the little pieces of the little successes every single day that keep you going in momentum.”
Caitlin, 28, Mississippi
Caitlin found herself unemployed in May of 2020 and was on unemployment insurance for three months. In August, she was hired at a new job — and then laid off again just before Thanksgiving. “The first time this year, I was devastated. I lost my career and have had to do a huge overhaul on my life,” she says. “Second time, I was numb and embarrassed. I felt like a failure for this being the second layoff in a year, and there was no wrapping my mind around that it was out of my control. I’ve lost all confidence in myself as a person, a worker, a partner, even a member of my own family — I was the only one to experience a layoff, let alone two.”
“I ended up crying on my brother’s kitchen floor, and he wrote me a prescription for antidepressants with the promise that when I get health insurance again I go see someone,” says Caitlin. “I’ve gone back and forth between hoarding my money and being overly frugal to having episodes of mass spending. I’ve lost control. It has slowly gotten better, but I have anxiety attacks almost nightly over my bank account, and I’ve started obsessing over my partner’s since we just moved in together. He lets me look at it since he knows it helps and just tries to remind me that he won’t let us lose anything.”
Caitlin’s best advice is to “just hang in there,” she says. “Honestly, that’s all you can really do. Start applying to anything and everything, even the smallest job is a new starting point. Make sure you have someone to lean on — even if it’s your cat. Find something else to look forward to that’s long term; a weekly free class for something, a TV show currently airing, a movie coming out… Anything.”
Katharine, 27, Florida
“I worked for security and emergency management at Disney Cruise Line,” says Katharine. “I was laid off by Disney at the beginning of December, and I was notified at the beginning of October.”
“I was angry. I’d been furloughed since April and started to see the writing on the wall,” she says. “When I was furloughed I was told to expect a couple weeks — maybe a month. Well, that turned to months and then a layoff. I’m devastated.”
“I was on unemployment until October; I just exhausted the last of my benefits this week,” says Katharine. “I’d spent the summer at my parents’ to save money while still paying my portion of rent and utilities on my apartment. I’m fortunate to have a good amount in savings. I wanted to buy my own place next year, but that’s not happening now. Emotionally, I’ve leaned heavily on my friends, which has taken a toll on them — they feel guilty to be working and hanging out with other people while I sit at home doing nothing.”
Sophia, 31, New York
Sophia, fortunately, has a job again now. But she was laid off from her dream job in May. “I was working in media — turns out, it’s not a great place to be when COVID hits. Three months into my new job, I was let go because our ad revenues were projected to plummet. It was purely a financial decision, so I didn’t take it personally, but I was pretty gutted. This was supposed to be my ‘dream job,’ the place where I would stay for years to come and grow my career in a new exciting direction.”
“I fully mourned the death of my career (or so it felt) for days,” she continues. “I definitely cried for a full day, then random spots of weepiness for weeks to come.”
“Everyone told me to rest, take time to myself, but I didn’t feel like I had that option. I woke up the next day seized with anxiety. Was I already late in the job search? I’d have to beat out such a huge number of applicants! Would I have to go back to associate-level jobs, when I had been previously looking forward to soon moving up to director-level positions? I tried to get comfortable with the idea of settling for less: less money, less responsibilities, less fun… I struggled a lot with this. As an ambitious woman, I had to reconsider what I wanted from my job — the money, the prestige, the mission. Like many people, I realized my priorities were a lot different post-COVID than pre-COVID.”
“I hit all the job boards right away that morning to calm my nerves and get a lay of the land, but I realized I had no way of telling which openings had expired, not taken down yet, or already overwhelmed with all the unemployed people,” she says.
“So I took my anxiety and did something I’d never done before — I posted about my layoff everywhere. I posted it on Instagram, on Linkedin, I texted it to all my friends and former coworkers and bosses. I had never been so frank about being jobless,” says Sophia. “I normally would’ve been too embarrassed, even if I had nothing to really be ashamed of. It was frankly an act of pure desperation.”
But that act paid off. She started hearing from her friends, connections, “totally random people,” Sophia says. “Honestly, being ‘shameless’ about my unemployment was the best thing I did for myself. It’s how I ended up finding my current job.”
Step Two: Create your layoff budget
With a big income change, it’s important to look at your finances to ensure you can survive without a job for as long as the search takes; this means figuring out which expenses can be cut. “The easiest ones to consider are cable, gym memberships, subscriptions,” says Carmen Perez, a personal finance advocate with Varo Bank and founder of Make Real Cents. “Next, I would suggest creating a bare bones budget that essentially only accounts for the things you must pay to keep the lights on. Things like rent, food, utilities, gas, insurance, childcare, transportation should be included in that budget and prioritized accordingly.”
If, after doing all of that, you still won’t be able to cover all your living expenses while you’re in between jobs, you can also try to see if your bank might continue to offer some pandemic-related assistance. It’s always worth attempting to negotiate some of your bills if money is tight.
“Don’t hesitate to reach out to your bank, credit card company, or any other lenders to work out a payment plan,” says Perez. “Most lenders are very open to working out a feasible financial plan versus no payments. While this is never the most fun thing in the world, you must communicate with your lenders during this time so that you can take steps to save your credit.”
“And while I don’t suggest going into debt, if it comes down to a last resort to avoid financial disaster, you may want to consider a personal loan or a loan from your retirement in the interim — but remember to only take out what you absolutely need to keep the lights on,” she continues. “Look at what your bank has to offer, like zero-fee and zero-interest small personal loans.”
Perez understands the devastation of being laid off, having gone through one herself in 2019. “It was very tough. Many people place their self-worth in their work, myself included, so I had a hard time for months trying to find a routine to get me out of the funk I was in,” she says. “Thankfully, I finally figured out what worked best for me and stuck with that. I started walking outdoors every day, getting up early as if I was going to work, took courses to keep my skills sharp, and made sure I set clear boundaries for the people in my life when I wasn’t up for talking.”
“I’m in a much better headspace than I was in the middle of June 2019, but honestly, it’s all about trying to get back into a routine,” she says. “A routine helps create the level of normalcy a job gives you. We are creatures of habit, and when our routines are thrown off, it can really throw folks into a funk.”
Step Three: Reevaluate and plan
When the future is uncertain, often the most helpful thing you can do for your mental health is to set about making a plan — not just a plan to get the next job, but a plan to process, a plan to grieve, a plan to feel anger. That’s exactly what Michele Olivier, a career guidance professional at O&H Consulting, helps people do. “They need to plan to be mad, and sad, and scared, and all of the other things that go with grief,” she says. “The longer you’ve been in a role, the deeper the roots into your identity.” Then, when they’re ready, she helps them create a plan for what kind of role they want and need next, and what needs to be done in order to get there.
Olivier says that not only is having a plan and structure (on Mondays you take one aspect of the job search, on Tuesdays you take another) a smart way to get employed more quickly, it helps prevent you from spinning in a hamster wheel — constantly refreshing your email or a jobs board, for example. “You have to have that structure in place so that you feel like you can take a walk in the park,” Olivier says.
Of course, there’s no denying that it’s harder right now to find a job than before, because the pandemic itself is a source of trauma. And people understandably feel more betrayed by layoffs than usual, because the need for security is even greater during a life-threatening pandemic. “It’s a lot more emotional than in other years,” says Olivier. “It feels a lot more like the wheels of business cared a lot less about anyone not at the top. I’m not sure that they actually cared less, but it’s much more obvious now how little they care.”
She knows just how much of the experience of being laid-off is an emotional battle, rather than simply a matter of strategy — fine-tuning your résumé and applying to the right openings, though of course, that’s a huge part of what she helps her clients with too. Because of that, as part of her job she’s often providing emotional support to her clients. “I have clients who are in therapy, and I work with their counselor if, for example, they’ve got four job offers on the table and they’re going to have different impacts on their psychology,” she says. “Or if we’ve got a big interview coming up, let’s talk about what we can do to not be a negative rain cloud.”
The fact that your employer left you adrift right around a major holiday — one that promotes being compassionate to others — deepens the feeling of betrayal and hurt. “You have to help people reevaluate a kind of fundamental thing we’ve been taught culturally — that you do right by the company, the company does right by you. And that’s just not true,” Olivier says.
It’s one thing to hear this and nod your head; it’s another to actually internalize it. It can be hard to reconcile it with the real people who represent a workplace, who are human and have feelings and are complicated. But Olivier believes it’s important to work on understanding where you truly stand in relation to any workplace, and that doing so can be empowering. “Because that also means that when the job stops doing what you need a job to do, you don’t need to feel guilty about going,” she says.
“One of my biggest struggles is that people think of HR as being on their side, and they’re not,” says Olivier, who worked for years as an HR professional. “I think that this year people will have kind of realized that the people that they thought were supposed to be their advocates were not. You know, we see now that Google has a union — so I’m really glad that people are getting a better perception of the reality of their working situation.”
As a 20-years-plus veteran of helping people find their next jobs, Olivier’s overarching advice is this: “It’s not hopeless. There are jobs, and with the right skills, with the right tools, and the right know-how you can fix it — it does get better,” she says. “And you don’t have to do it alone.”
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