The loss of a job is never good news, but it feels even more distressing now in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. With national unemployment rates lingering at historic highs, the situation has turned into more than an economic problem, as experts warn of mental health consequences brought on by joblessness.
Philip Harvey, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with the University of Miami Health System and the Miami VA Medical Center, says this downturn has targeted workers who may have the least economic security.
“We have to keep in mind that the type of job people are most likely to lose — those in hotels, restaurants, tourism — tend to be lower-paying jobs,” he explains. “These workers don’t have a lot to fall back on.”
Job loss is one of life’s great stressors, along the lines of a divorce or the death of a spouse. No matter how the company couches the sudden separation – furloughs, downsizing, layoffs, restructuring — it stills stings. Boxing your belongings and bidding farewell to co-workers, especially if they’re staying on, can make any employee feel rejected, undervalued.
It can also spark fear of the future, as people wonder how they will pay their bills and feed their families. “Economic stress,” Dr. Harvey says, “is a huge factor in feeling hopeless. People don’t know what’s in store for them. They don’t know how long it will last or when the jobs will come back.”
No wonder such uncertainty can slide into anxiety.
What’s more, the loss of a job is more than the loss of a paycheck. It’s also the loss of security and routine.
This sense of despondency and hopelessness has been quantified in other eras of high unemployment. After the Great Recession, for example, one study found that unemployed Americans were more than twice as likely as those with full-time jobs to say they currently have or are being treated for depression — 12.4 percent vs. 5.6 percent, respectively. For the long-term unemployed — those out of work for 27 weeks or more, the depression rate topped off at 18 percent.
While this survey pointed out that the relationship could work both ways – unemployment causes depression but also that depression can cause job loss – another study, published in 2011, reported that those who had faced “devastating” financial losses from unemployment also had “much higher rates of feeling ashamed or embarrassed.”
After all, so much of our identity is tied to what we do for a living. When we’re cut from such a connection, it can leave us feeling unmoored — a problem that might be aggravated even as the economy opens up, Dr. Harvey points out.
“Just like not everyone gets laid off, not everyone gets selected to come back,” Dr. Harvey says. “If you’re one of those people who aren’t brought back but see others returning, it can be a real blow.”
Certain segments of the working population will likely suffer more.
“There’s a subgroup of people who will face more challenges,” Dr. Harvey says. “They’re the ones who will have a harder time finding jobs.” These include those with few skills and those whose previous jobs were highly specialized and therefore not transferable to other employment.”
Unfortunately, getting mental health care is almost impossible if you have no health insurance. “The reality is that when you lose your income source, you also lose your health benefits,” Dr. Harvey says. “The stress essentially doubles. The people who might need it most [at this time] can’t access it.”
In Miami-Dade, uninsured people who need mental health care are generally referred to Jackson Memorial Hospital but “even before COVID-19, there was a waiting list,” he adds.
Dr. Harvey does offer some coping skills, however:
- Stay busy. Look for structure. Establish a routine. “You need to find something to do,” he says. “Fill your time as productively as possible.”
- Accept the loss. You have every right to mourn. Losing a job is traumatic and you’ll experience mixed feelings for a while. Give yourself time and space to work them out.
- Focus on self-improvement. This might be the perfect time to sign up for online courses – many of them are free – that can help bolster your skills and therefore your employability.
- Consider a fresh start. Have you ever thought of changing careers? Starting a business? This might be the nudge you need. Stay positive.
- Take stock of your finances. Budgeting, prioritizing your needs, freezing your superfluous spending can give you a sense of control.
- Take care of your physical needs. Make sure to get enough sleep, eat properly, and exercise.
Lastly, remember that nothing lasts forever: “This too will end,” says Dr. Harvey. “The economy will rebound. Jobs will come back.”
Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Columnist
Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author, who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.
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