the trauma of unemployment; pain of being unemployed

Living with the Trauma of Unemployment

Three weeks ago, a relative suffered a traumatic injury from a bad accident. It didn’t look good, when he was first transported to the hospital. He suffered greatly from pain. But, through it all, I’ve been observing him fight back and endure with a strength no human gives.

Through my observations of his experience, I couldn’t help but reflect on the trauma of unemployment.

Unemployment is the type of situation you view from afar but never want it to (or believe it will) become your reality. But, when it does, especially for an extended period, it seems like a worsening pain without recovery. The pain comes in many forms, too: criticism, depression, discouragement, disappointment, fear, frustration, shame, social elimination, corporate discrimination, rejection, silence.

Consider the words of David Branchflower, a Labor Economist, in one of his The Guardian pieces on unemployment:

“Unemployment hurts. Unemployment has undeniably adverse effects on those unfortunate enough to experience it. A range of evidence indicates that unemployment tends to be associated with malnutrition, illness, mental stress, depression, increases in the suicide rate, poor physical health in later life and reductions in life expectancy.”

This traumatic experience leaves several scars: emotional, financial, mental, physical, psychological, social. Without a doubt, the whole experience will crush you in every way, if you allow it.

Add to this the challenge of searching for employment nowadays. “The trauma of unemployment is serious enough without the added burden of exhaustion, physical and mental, from searching from work,” says Peter McIlveen, Ph.D, Associate Professor at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, in a LinkedIn post.

Still, many press through the job search, hoping to land a job and a steady income. Despite best efforts and hard work, constant rejections become the norm – adding more emotional wounds.

“This trauma,” says Justin Menkes in his Harvard Business Review article entitled, Tackling the Trauma of Unemployment, “may cause us to personalize the external circumstances, as if they reveal some dark secret about our worse deficiencies.” And, if you’re not careful, this personalization might dim your outlook – and tempt you to give up rather than persevere.

As I watch my relative slowly recover, though, I’m reminded of the importance of engaging with life and moving onward, despite traumatic events and experiences, including unemployment. You feel shameful, guilty, and helpless, sometime after becoming actively unemployed. You long for your situation to immediately change. But, it helps to move past these things, with hope, after your mourning period.

Research shows: it takes some longer than others to bounce back from trauma. But every person, who is unemployed, must accept and learn to navigate this challenging situation at some point – and go on.

I’m no stranger to unemployment trauma. I had no control over my sudden and active unemployment but anticipated a quick reentry back into the workforce. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was: a lengthy unemployment period, resulting in feelings of failure and inadequacy, overwhelm, self-doubt, and shame.

It was one thing to join the ranks of the unemployed. It was another thing, however, to stay there longer than expected. This resulted in a consistent focus on my unemployment status – with more pain from pondering ‘what if’ questions and wondering when I’d get a job offer.

My life as I knew it changed. I became all too familiar with terms, such as: employment figures, cyclical unemployment, fruitless job search, labor shortage, long-term unemployment. And many times, initially, I couldn’t believe someone, with assets, would have much difficulty landing a job.

I questioned academic choices, abilities, and employability. I wondered where I’d gone wrong in my job search to have such a struggle, though I’ve always given my best efforts. I longed for change.

But, things never changed the way I wanted. And, with the passage of time, I realized something: everybody goes through challenging and trying experiences in this life, at some point. You either accept them and endure or reject them and give up.

I accepted my new normal. By accepting it, I didn’t become passive or stagnate. Instead, I learned to cope with unemployment, its challenges, pains, and scars. And, I continued (and continue) to do my part in bettering myself and situation – with hopes for relief.

I admit: it’s not always easy to keep moving forward upon accepting (and facing) your reality. I’ve experienced discouragement so strong, I’ve wished I could escape the unemployed season of my life for a better one. But, for many things in life, going through is the only way out.

And by accepting and learning to cope, it becomes easier to live your life. To pursue wisdom like you’ve never pursued it, if you decide to. To challenge your perception of unemployment. To better yourself in every aspect. To correct a misplaced identity. To take care of your whole self. To boost your resilience. To help others how you can. To learn new skills and knowledge. To apply this knowledge and practice these skills. To pursue new interests, change careers, and possibly career paths (though the scars of unemployment might try to haunt you).

In its recent Employment Situation – January 2017 report, the U. S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of unemployed people at 7.6 million (4.8%). 1.9 million accounts for
the long-term unemployed (those who have been without jobs for 27 weeks or more).

Though there’s debate over unemployment numbers and rates (and who’s counted or not), one significant fact remains: high numbers of people are without gainful employment.

Despite talks of full employment, millions are still struggling to find jobs – including jobs with decent wages. Many want jobs but are overlooked because they haven’t been employed in a long time.

Talk about scarred.

It’s real out here. So real, you must care for your trauma, pain, wounds, and scars. So, they have the smallest impact possible on your daily life.

Now, I know everybody manages the trauma of unemployment differently. But, at the same time, please remember: accepting your (un)employment status and learning to cope is the best way to get through it. The best way to live your life this moment (to best of your ability), in the meantime.

Sure, you long for a change in your situation. You desire a job or steady income. I know and understand. Still, you shouldn’t stop living your life and moving forward. Life circumstances can change. So, focus on your present reality (and what you can do now), while remaining hopeful about your (personal and professional) future.

(If you need professional help or treatment, then don’t hesitate to reach out to a qualified mental health or trauma professional, and/or a professional counselor.)

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