What to say to someone who loses their job because of the coronavirus pandemic

Business ideas on pause.
Business ideas on pause.
Image: AP Photo/John Minchillo
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The coronavirus pandemic has only begun to wreak havoc on the economy, but millions of people around the world have already felt the impact, with mass layoffs and furloughs announced daily and throngs of small businesses shuttering.

You’ve probably already heard from a friend or loved one who has lost their job, and thus some part of their identity, because of the crisis. When you receive those calls, it can be tempting to offer words of optimism or to look for silver linings. It’s only human.

But you’re better off ignoring impulses to, say, point out how the crisis is temporary and the economy will one day recover, or commenting about all the free time someone will have on their hands now for leisure or to pick up a new skill. At least don’t go to these places when the sting is still fresh, because your caller is only human, too, and research suggests they’re not yet ready to process your goodwill.

There are stages to recovering from a layoff, says psychologist Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and author of the 2013 book Keeping Your Head After Losing Your Job. “There’s a sort of sequencing to what you say to people,” he advises.

Right now, most people are still dealing with the shock of change. In your first conversation with a distraught and newly unemployed friend, he says, you have one job: validate.

Validate that worrying is normal. Validate the questions your friend has about the future, about their retirement funds, and their rent. Validate the loss, no matter how ambiguous it is. (Many companies have announced intentions to hire back staff when business rebounds, but without making specific guarantees.)

“It’s sort of like going to the dentist,” says Leahy. “The dentist says, ‘I’m going to give you a shot. It’s going to hurt intensely for 30 seconds.’ I want to know that. I want to know that she knows that.”

In the job-loss context, that might sound like, “Sorry, that’s really hard” or “That must be upsetting for you,” says Leahy. The tenor should communicate the idea that “of course you’re upset, of course you’re anxious, of course you’re worried, of course you’re confused.”

Your attempts to help a person process the news, or to figure out ways of coping through the next few months and then making a recovery, can wait.

Do not tell anyone how to feel or what to do

Xi Tian, a PhD candidate and graduate assistant in the department of communication at Pennsylvania State University, specializes in interpersonal processes that can help people cope with stressful life events. She recently led a study examining the effects of different types of messages to support someone dealing with a hardship—in the case of the study, an argument with a partner—and found that validation was in fact key to improving a person’s belief in their ability to cope and manage the situation.

Other well-meaning attempts at support, including downplaying the seriousness of the problem or giving someone tips for what to do next, had the same unintentional consequences as they do in studies about public health messages: they can backfire or even add to someone’s unhappiness and frustration.

Tian and her co-authors on the study wanted to understand the mechanism behind those negative responses. For their paper, published recently in a special issue of the Journal of Communication, the team recruited more than 300 married participants who had recently had an argument with their spouse. In an online survey, the subjects were asked to imagine recounting the story of the argument with someone in their network, then envision that person delivering a particular message.

The hypothetical messages were manipulated to represent different levels of “person-centeredness,” or the degree to which the supposedly supportive comment acknowledged and explored the distressed person’s feelings and experiences, as opposed to dismissing or reframing them.

One low person-centered message used in the study was: “Look, nobody is worth getting so worked up about. I mean, it’s just not that big a deal. You have other things to worry about. Face the fact that worrying isn’t worth your trouble and stop being so depressed about the whole thing.”

Compare that to: “Sure. I understand. I mean, it’s hard to figure everything out in a relationship. It’s understandable that you are stressed out since it’s someone you really care about. It makes sense that you would be upset about this.”

Those who received the validating messages were more likely to say that their emotional state improved, while participants who were basically told to chill out and forget the spat were likely to resent it. Language that was controlling or directive left people feeling less optimistic and more annoyed.

“What we found was that low person-centered messages, those messages that explicitly criticized, challenged, and denied the other person’s feelings and emotions, did not help people manage their marital disagreement at all, and it did not help reduce emotional distress,” says Tian. “In fact, those messages actually induced a lot of anger in the participants.” This was consistent with years of research showing that people react negatively to any suggestion that their freedom—in this case, to feel a particular way—is compromised.

The same subjects also reported that they were criticizing the message while they were receiving it.

Ask pertinent questions, then listen

Losing a job is almost like losing someone that you love, and we have to let people grieve and see it as part of the coping process, argues Tian.

Yes, research also shows how such tough experiences can lead to growth in the future, but it’s not your role to provide the positive spin for others, she says. But don’t be afraid to make yourself available. “We know a lot about how social support can have the can have the potential to help people in distress and increase their psychological, physical wellbeing, as well as improve their personal relationships,” Tian notes.

“The key here is just really just let a person tell you what their situation is,” she says. Ask pertinent questions: How did it happen? How do you feel? Then listen.

Hopefully, by talking it out, she adds, the person “will begin to feel that it’s more manageable because at least they have figured out what was stressing them out, and how they can move forward from it.”