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THAT'S THE BALM

Six ways to handle the worry that comes when you’re laid off

Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

Until just over a week ago, Brianna Davis was feeling secure in her social media and content creator role for Student Beans, a kind of Groupon site for college kids. She knew there was a risk of layoffs, but she had been reassured in a recent call that her job at the New York-based company was safe.

The next day she found herself among the millions laid off abruptly in the sudden economic downturn, triggered by the lockdown of businesses in several countries to curb the spread of coronavirus. It was “super scary,” Davis tells Quartz. As she listened to an HR person read what sounded to her like a script over the phone, she felt “some sort of embarrassment,” she adds. “I felt like I was unimportant to the company if they could just let me go so easily.”

Davis, a recent Arizona State University journalism graduate, quickly turned to social media to let people know that she was newly on the market. “Yesterday morning I was laid off. I’m still taking the time to process it all. If you’re looking or know anyone looking for a kick-ass digital content creator or social media guru… I’m your girl,” she tweeted.

A virtual group hug of support came quickly, buoying her spirits and leading to a few new industry connections. “I just had so many of my family members, friends, and peers reach out to me about how hardworking I am and how talented I am,” she recalls. “I kid you not, I was crying over my post on LinkedIn, based on all the kind words people were willing to share.”

With a single move, Davis had checked off the two tasks that, according to psychologist Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York, are the only priorities when you find yourself out of work: look for a job and, more importantly, take care of yourself.

Research shows most people find work through their networks, so Davis’ online connections were the right place for her to begin. As a bonus, her alert elicited messages that helped restore her faith in herself.

It was a model beginning, and a sample of the anxiety-mitigating actions one can take to reduce the stress of being unemployed. Leahy, who also is the author of The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You (Harmony, 2006), shared six more suggestions with Quartz for what to do if you’re suddenly out of a job.

1. Get past the shame, ASAP

Shame seems to accompany layoffs, arguably attaching itself to the wrong parties (i.e. the former employees, rather than the companies that were unable to prepare properly for a downturn). Fortunately, but also tragically, the scale of global economic disruption caused by the coronavirus should make shame less of a burden for people laid off during this crisis, says Leahy.

Some studies suggest that people tend to feel worse about being unemployed—and report poorer health— when the economy is strong, Leahy notes. If people can wrap their head around the idea that this period of unemployment will likely be only temporary, he believes, the psychological impact of a layoff shouldn’t be as devastating as in past recessions.

Still, if shame makes an appearance, it’s important to address it so it doesn’t linger (Leahy offers tips for doing so in this 2013 piece in Psychology Today). Shame is unhealthy enough on its own, but it also can keep you from being open with family, friends, and people in your professional networks who might be in a position to help you find a new job, which makes it doubly insidious.

2. Limit the time spent looking for a new job

Losing a sense of structure is easy to do during this pandemic. When you’re living under quarantine, the hours and days blur together, and it becomes evident that time is an illusion. However, we all need the powerful construct of time right now to build the skeleton of a new, stabilizing routine.

That’s particularly true for people who have lost the anchoring rhythm of the workday, says Leahy. And though it may feel pressing, job-hunting ought to take up only a fraction of your new schedule, maybe one hour a day, he suggests. The task necessarily involves rejections and discouragement until the mission is accomplished, making it likely “the worst part of the day,” the psychologist explains.

Figure out what would be most productive, whether it’s networking or searching for jobs online for that hour, and then move on.

Use the other hours in the day for exercising, eating healthy foods (for the sake of both your physical and mental health), for the necessary act of socializing with friends (since you’ve lost the social contact you had on the job), and for hobbies that have brought solace in the past.

Many people also find volunteer work, whether delivering food to the needy, calling the elderly, or joining online efforts through local organizations. “If you volunteer, you actually have a job. You’re not being paid, but you’re actually doing something that’s helpful, which is uplifting for most people,” Leahy says. “You can think about what to do to be helpful to someone else.”

Add these activities to your agenda and your days will soon be full.

3. Carve out a “worry time”

Worry and rumination are the evil twins that haunt a period of unemployment. “The worry is, you know, ‘Will I ever get a job? Will I be able to support myself?’ The rumination is ‘Why is this happening? I can’t believe I’m in this position,’” says Leahy.

Such reactions are to be expected to accompany any layoff, never mind during a global pandemic of a virus we don’t totally understand. “I would normalize the worry,” Leahy advises. Tell yourself, “Of course, you’re worried, everybody’s worried. You have the right to feel worried.” Validate your own concerns as you would anyone else’s.

But once you’ve done that, there’s another question you should ask yourself. “I would say, if you engage in worry, ask, ‘Is this going to lead to any productive action?'” Leahy says.

Rather than torture yourself with “what ifs,” look for some concrete step you can take to alleviate specific worries. In fact, it can be useful to make an appointment with yourself to deal with them, Leahy says. He calls it the “worry time.”

“Write down those worries during the course of the day and evening,” says Leahy, and at the worry time, say 3 pm, sit down with the anxious thoughts and consider how you might address each one productively.

Being productive for now may mean figuring out how to get groceries or other supplies in the strange new world we live in, or filling out paperwork for government relief programs aimed at rent, mortgage, student loans, or credit card payments. (Accessing government support programs is not only essential, but it will help loosen worry’s grip.)

“Ask yourself  ‘Is there any productive action I can take today to make progress?’” Leahy suggests. And when the answer is no, or not until next week, accept it. This method will not prevent alarming, self-important thoughts from making sneak attacks throughout the day. Leahy suggests treating these like telemarketing robocalls. Ask yourself “Why would I ever engage with this?”—and hang up.

4. Recalibrate your expectations

The human ability to think in the abstract about the past or to imagine the future can often be a liability, keeping us trapped in nostalgia, yearning, or fear. After a layoff, however, it can also be an asset, if you can take Leahy’s advice and see the period of unemployment as contained and “compartmentalized to a point in time.” He prefers to see it as a sabbatical or the “time in between the last job and the next job.”

“This is not the rest of your life,” he emphasizes. It’s just a transition.

For many of us, the default bias is that we’ll always be employed and that our income will only rise. Yet often this is not the case. More of us should assume that we will have periods of being out of work and that our income will fluctuate, Leahy says. In that context, collecting unemployment for 12 weeks or taking a pay cut every so often doesn’t seem like a life-altering circumstance.

Of course, we can only guess how long the economic shutdown will last, based on ever-changing models and a constant drip of scientific updates to go on. Should the rebound be years away, it’s worth noting that the longer that someone is out of work, the more likely they are to develop more serious mental health concerns, including depression.

If history serves as a guide, a long recession is also likely to leave deeper scars in rural areas and to cause more intense psychological distress for people of color and for lower-income individuals, who may have less financial resilience and could face greater discrimination when job hunting.

5. Redefine yourself away from your work

The loss of identity that accompanies a layoff is real and deserves a sympathetic response. But it’s also true that a period of unemployment can challenge that too-common mental trap of believing that what you or anyone else does for a living defines who you are or establishes your value.

“My view is that you have to have a multifaceted identity,” Leahy tells Quartz. If someone tells him, “I’m no longer a lawyer,” for instance, he asks, “What else are you? Maybe you’re a husband, or wife, or mother, or father and brother, sister, a member of the community, someone who maybe has some spiritual connections, somebody who has hobbies.”

Leahy wants people to think of their identity as a pie chart. Your job, he sais, is “one small piece of that pie.” Visualized that way, he says, “you think, ‘Yeah, I’m a lot of things. I’m not just my job.’ What this does is it helps you refocus all the other things in your life.”

With this subtle shift in thinking, the world expands. Perhaps this leads to you signing up for an online class to top up your current skills, which could greatly improve your chances of finding a new role. Or, more dramatically, you may find yourself embarking on a literal move to another city or region, or a total career change, leaving finance for catering, or project management for teaching. Says Leahy, this economic slump “may be a time where people can redefine who they are.”

6. Reduce your “need state”

Some of the most popular memes shared through the coronavirus turmoil have been sweetly earnest messages about recognizing how little we need in the way of material goods and how many intangibles we take for granted. For anyone suddenly unsure about their financial future, such stock-taking is more than mood-boosting. Reducing your need state, as Leahy puts it, can calm anxieties.

You might do that by asking yourself to remember what life was like before you had the job, or in a period when your income was lower. “I think about grad school,” says Leahy, who went to Yale University on a fellowship. “I think ‘Gee, ‘was it really miserable?’ I was living month to month. I had my mattress on the floor, like all grad students, and I had a girlfriend. What the hell else did I need?”

“I didn’t have a lot of these artificial needs,” he adds. “It wasn’t like I was going and buying fashionable clothing in New Haven somewhere. It was blue jeans and a t-shirt.”  

Whether you’re employed or not, he also encourages people to spend time thinking about all the things they can do for free. “You can go for a walk. You know, you can watch videos, you can read, you can have fun with your partner, or your family, whatever it is,” says Leahy. “We tend to think that everything’s going to cost a lot of money.”

Without the income we’re used to, life can feel gloomy, as if one is doomed to be idle. But, says Leahy, thinking about what you can do for nothing can be grounding. “If you don’t need a lot of things, you’re free to enjoy what’s simple,” he says, “and I think that’s liberating.”

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