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Job Loss, Grief, and Professional Identity                    

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By Mark Carey

There is little to no information about the personal toll job loss takes on employees who are fired or laid off.   I often write about severance negotiation and skip over this topic, until now.  The irony is that as an employment attorney I deal with client job loss in every case I have. Although I am not a licensed therapist, I do spend an inordinate about of time counseling clients through the job loss grieving process.  As a society, we treat job loss and grieving job loss as a taboo subject. Terminated employees are just expected to get over it and move on to the next new gig.   There is a great deal of shame in our LinkedIn workforce and people are programmed to only reflect strength and positive attitudes.      

Your Professional Identity

If I met you on the street, you would probably tell me about yourself starting with what you do for employment. Most people start random conversations this way to break the ice.  I would expect you to say you have been in the same career for quite some time but have changed jobs as the economy ebbed and flowed over the years.

“Employment is a key element in life that goes beyond basic psychological, social, and economic needs… employment not only results in earning an income; it also imposes time structure during the day, implies regularly shared experiences and contacts with people outside the family, links individuals to goals and purposes that transcend their own, defines aspects of personal status and identity, and enforces activity.” (Source).

No one is immune from the negative hit the ego takes when the job loss occurs.  Years ago, I was working with a female President of a subsidiary to a well-known publicly traded company.  I had negotiated the employment agreement that got her there and several years later she came to me because the company had decided they had to move in a different direction, a common explanation given to many of my clients.  I remember the phone call with this executive today; I guess clients leave impressions on me.  The call started out normal, but I could sense undertones of sadness which came in waves during the call and eventually overwhelmed my client. She abruptly burst into tears and commenced five to ten minutes of sobbing on the phone.  At first, this was quite awkward because it was unexpected.  We had been discussing the noncompete buried in her incentive compensation agreement and what would happen if she went to work for a competitor, that her restricted stock would be forfeited.  I paused and commenced listening to this woman sob uncontrollably, but I realized all she wanted was to be listened to. I guess most people just want to be listened to during this critical period right after they receive the notice of termination.  But what struck me about this conversation was the comments the woman made about herself and how this job was her complete identity and that she worked her ass off to get the C-Suite over a long career.  She was blown away to see it all ripped away from her in an instant and she remarked she did not know what she was going to do as she believed her career was over, more specifically, her identity as a high powered executive was over!   

Job Loss and Grief

Did you feel any pain when you lost a job?  Did you get angry about losing the coveted position you worked so hard for?  Did you blame anyone, or did you accept personal responsibility for being terminated?  Maybe the termination was out of your control all together? 

“The grief process encompasses a wide array of emotions, cognitions, and behaviors. Part of a healthy grief trajectory are high levels of emotional distress and intense reactions of grief which persist for only a brief period after the job loss, while a person remains capable to function in all aspects of one’s daily life.” (Source).

The Stages of the Job Loss Grieving Process

Here are the stages of the job loss grieving process:

  1. Initial Shock: in some cases, terminations come out of the blue. In other situations, there may have been some warning. In either case, there can be shock when the message is received that you no longer have a job. It may take some time to absorb the reality of the news.
  2. Anger: You may feel anger toward your employer, toward yourself, and even toward your family. Such thoughts and feelings are a normal part of the grieving process, but it is important not to get stuck in this stage to move forward.
  3. Resistance: Sometimes you may find yourself having difficulty fully accepting the reality of the situation.
  4. Sadness: It is normal to experience feelings of sadness and to want to withdraw emotionally after a job loss. However, if your job search [sic] goes on a long time or you have predisposing factors, you may become vulnerable to clinical depression. Getting professional support is critical as depression can interfere with your energy and effectiveness in finding a job.
  5. Acceptance: Finally, you will come to accept what has happened (you don’t have to like it) and move on.


The Personal Impact of Job Loss

“[D]ismissal from work belongs to the top-5 most stressful life events.  Dealing with involuntary job loss mostly involves a confrontation with secondary losses, like financial security, status, social contacts, structure, identity, and sense of self… Although one might argue that involuntary job loss is a psychological trauma that causes posttraumatic stress-like symptoms (e.g. anxiety, irritability, hypervigilance) or depression-like symptoms (e.g. dysphoria, worthlessness, blaming oneself), we conceptualize job loss that may yield typical symptoms of grief, including separation distress, yearning for what is lost, a sense of bitterness and/or numbness, and difficulties to accept the loss and its implications.” (Source).

The bottom line in any job loss is the sudden loss of professional and personal identity.  As an employment attorney I counsel job loss every day among my clients and accept it as a normal part of my professional life.  I am the person you talk to explain why you were fired, whether you had anything to do with it, your shame, your guilt, your victimization from discrimination and a host of complicated personal questions that just run real deep for many people. Grieving the loss of job for some employees can be very difficult and often compared to grieving the loss of a loved one. 

Job Loss Can Lead to Long Term Mental Crisis

Grief from losing a job can turn into a long-term mental health crisis.  I remember working with a client many years ago who had a long career in sales in the computer industry. He was in his mid-forties, divorced and had a young son he adored and looked forward to spending time with him during his parenting turns with his ex-wife. The guy was quite personable, and sales seemed like a natural fit for him. He also liked to take diving excursions with sharks in cages all around the world.  However, life somehow just did not seem fair to this fellow after his employment termination and several years later I came across his name in an article in a national newspaper where he had ingested some form of liquid obtained from the dark web, essentially committing suicide in a mirrored car in the heat of the summer.  No one found him for some time until the smell became unimaginable. He was wearing a business suit when the emergency personnel opened the door.  

Managing The Stress of Job Loss

1. Give yourself time to adjust. Grief is a process.

2. Keep open communications with others significant in your life. Accept support from those who care about you. They may also be a source of job information.

3. Spouses, partners and children are also affected by your job loss. Explain the economic forces that led to the job loss. Reassure children that the family will work together to get through this time.

4. Make a job Seeking Plan. Create a strategy and consider the search as your current job. It requires planning, energy, and daily attention.

5. Update your resume.

6. Use every community and networking resource available.

7. Practice how you will interview and answer questions about the reason for changing jobs.

8. Practice good self-care. Sleep, exercise, relaxation and good nutrition are more important than ever during the stress of unemployment. Use the extra time to set up that exercise program you never had time for when you were working so hard.  Avoid the use of drugs and alcohol to deal with stress. Take scheduled breaks from your job search and allow time for fun. You need to be in good emotional shape to do your best in job interviews.

9. Get professional help, when needed. If you find yourself being tearful, anxious, sad, irritable, having trouble with sleep (too much or unable to sleep) or are unable to motivate yourself, you may consider getting help for depression from a mental [health] professional.


You Are Not Your Job

So many people get sucked into the false belief that their jobs are who they are as a person and then get completely derailed when they lose their employment.

In another example, I remember recently working with a male executive who suffered from throat cancer and eventually lost his voice box.  He had a synthetic device inserted in his windpipe to help facilitate his communication, but his original voice was lost forever.  The client was a salt of the earth kind of guy and extremely well liked. He had been a manager and later an executive in the same industry for the better part of his whole career. He came to me when the employer began interfering with his position and moved him around the company and eventually demoted him back to the same city when he started with the company some twenty years ago.  I handled the matter, put the client onto disability benefits and obtained a very sizable severance package from his employer. I call this the hat trick in employment law. The employer did not like the fact that their once star executive could no longer speak in his original voice and had to use a mechanical voice device when speaking with company clients.  If you were in the executive’s shoes, you may have thought the world was ending for his career and personal identity was over.  This client was different, and he taught me a lesson about job loss. After losing his voice box to cancer, after losing his finances from being fired, and after losing the management position he held, you would have thought the client would crater and implode into depression and lose the will to live.  But this client was different and his resilience to form a new life left a profound impression on me that your job is not who you are.  Your identity is not derived from what you do for work, your identity is entirely different and separate.  Many clients I have dealt with just cannot separate their work identity and their personal sense of self.  No one really talks about this issue because people fear it as a sign of weakness to even discuss it.  Job loss and the loss of personal self is an enormous issue for many people, but it does not have to be.

Unforeseen Positive Results from Job Loss

Losing a job can also become an unforeseen positive transformation and I have seen clients over the years pivot successfully without losing a sense of self identity.  Many clients do not buy into the idea that their job is who they are. These clients transition between jobs without falling apart and making huge leaps forward in a way thought impossible before the termination. One door closes and another opens. I have say that most clients I have worked with actually find better paying and more personally satisfying jobs after being terminated or laid off.

For more information about job loss please contact our employment attorneys at Carey & Associates PC at 203-255-4150. 

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