Leadership for Life – Job Hunting Stress

By on September 2, 2014
Job Hunting Stress

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Several years ago, I wrote an article for the National Business Employment Weekly, a publication of Dow Jones, Inc. The NBEW no longer is published, but in the light of continuing disruption of the labor market, I thought the following edited version of that article might be helpful.

Despite being acknowledged as a great leader in his organization, Brian Miller (name changed for privacy) found himself reorganized out of his job earlier this year. As the weeks of unemployment wore on, Brian reported frequent headaches, shortness of temper, and other vague physical discomforts, all of which were uncharacteristic. His wife, Marlene, complained that Brian was increasingly withdrawn and often snapped at her and their two daughters. Brian countered that he was constantly being interrupted while doing “important work” at home and that he was often “just tired.” In fact, he was still angry at being a victim of downsizing, but held his feelings “in check” because he believed anger was unproductive and immature.

“I should have seen it coming,” he said to his wife, “but I never thought it would happen to me.” To Marlene’s surprise, he said he often woke up in the middle of the night and had trouble getting back to sleep. He was frustrated at his lack of progress in finding a new job but didn’t want to burden his family with details about his search, especially since he didn’t have much to report.

Brian and his family were exhibiting the common symptoms of stress. Losing a job ranks with death, divorce, and being jailed in the toll it takes on mind and body. Individuals and families alike will experience the stresses associated with a job loss and subsequent search. Following are eight reasons why the stress of losing a job affects families, and ten suggestions to help you handle the loss more effectively.

  1. Stress is a function of change. Rapid, unexpected change, such as a job loss, is more stressful than alterations that come gradually or are anticipated.
  2. Stress manifests itself physically and psychologically. Symptoms may include restlessness, excessive sleep, a lack of motivation, a sense of foreboding, digestive upsets, decreased sexual interest or sexual response, moodiness, a short attention span, a short temper, obsessive thoughts, unusual or exaggerated fears, headaches, backaches or other physical symptoms. Guilt and depression also often accompany high stress. It’s important to take these symptoms seriously, since ignoring them can lead to more severe problems. Your body and mind are a set of interacting systems that can break down if the stress isn’t dealt with.
  3. Families experience stress in different ways. Stress may show up as increased bickering, giving others “the silent treatment,” or an increase in minor problems that may have existed before. Stress in children is often disguised. Young children who may not be very verbal often manifest it through abrupt changes in their behavior at home or school. For example, they may suddenly develop discipline or performance problems. When children cling to you more or return to comfort objects (blankets or teddy bears) that were previously discarded, or if their behavior becomes excessively ritualized, search for the causes of stress and try to reduce them quickly.
  4. One of the most common responses to job loss is grief. Any loss triggers a normal grief response. Job losses can cause as much grief as a death or divorce, but terminated employees often ignore their feelings or try to keep a “stiff upper lip.”
  5. Spouses often feel angry toward employers but blame their mates. A job hunting mate is often the handiest target for displaced anger at an employer and often is blamed for the job loss. Telltale remarks start with, “Why did you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?” or “If only you had….” Sole breadwinners who lose jobs are sometimes accused of breaching an implicit marriage contract, which calls for them to be the primary wage earner and source of support for the family. In dual career families, job seekers may be blamed for not carrying their fair share of the load, leading to resentments about the loss of family perks, such as dinners out, theater tickets, etc.
  6. Fear of the consequences of income loss often causes irrational thinking. Fear and anxiety are energy sapping feelings. Rather than drive productive behavior, they cause us to “vibrate” unproductively. This includes over generalizing, moralizing, disqualifying positive events and jumping to conclusions. “You always…,” “You never…,” and “You should…” are typical responses to this kind of fear.
  7. Both the job seeker and family may experience shame. This leads to keeping the job loss a secret from neighbors and friends and, in some cases, children and relatives. Ironically, they’re the likeliest sources of emotional support and potential leads for job hunters. Shame also keeps couples from talking to each other about the job search, since discussing the search means acknowledging the loss repeatedly. Unaccustomed feelings of shame are confusing and embarrassing. If unaddressed, they can lead to more serious marital problems.
  8. Anxiety is probably the strongest feeling that spouses experience due to the ambiguity of their position. Job seekers know how the job search is going, but spouses have to wait for reports, which often are delayed or nonexistent. The lack of information leads to increased anxiety and, eventually, nagging for information, suffering in silence or attempting to take control of the job search. Job hunters will sense their spouse’s loss of confidence and feel resentful or lose self esteem. This is another breach of the implicit marriage contract, which calls for complete trust under all circumstances.

Relieving the Tension

What follows is a “recipe” for restoring confidence in the family while providing mutual support. These suggestions will help improve family communication, reduce negative feelings and relieve the stress associated with a job search.

  1. Nothing reduces tension like acknowledging feelings. Talk to members of your family, especially your spouse, about how you feel. Recognize that your feelings are normal and that talking about them doesn’t make them worse. In fact, the reverse is true.
  2. Acknowledge the grief process. Realize that grief is a process with a beginning, middle, and end. If not interfered with, grief will run its course, leading to a feeling of acceptance and the ability to move ahead with life. Don’t try to stifle or deny your feelings; that only delays working them through.
  3. Share your feelings. Describe your observations, thoughts, emotions, intentions and behaviors. Distinguish carefully between what you see and what you believe, and between what you think and how you feel. Try not to blame; there’s a difference between “I want” and “You should.”
  4. Monitor and control displaced anger. Pent-up anger is caused by an inability to express feelings toward your former company. Resist the temptation to call your old boss, though, since you don’t want to jeopardize future employment references, severance pay, health insurance or outplacement assistance. The energy generated by your feelings is best discharged by positive, helpful behavior leading to a new job.
  5. Create and nurture a support system within and outside of the family. That’s really what networking is all about. Facebook and LinkedIn can be useful tools in generating a network, but face to face contact is still the most powerful approach.
  6. Talk to friends and relatives about what you’re experiencing. Allow them to offer emotional and moral support. Give them the opportunity to provide potential job leads, but don’t hold it against them if they don’t. Allow children to contribute appropriately to solving family problems as well. This will help them avoid excessive anxiety and the consequent misbehavior associated with a lack of information and a feeling of powerlessness.
  7. Reduce the potential for depression by taking control of your life wherever possible. Take a financial inventory to determine how long you can survive without income. Decide on a standard of living you’re comfortable with, beginning with a clear picture of your fixed expenses. Do you know how much money you need to make ends meet? Make rational estimates about the length of time you’ll need to find a job and whether you’ll have to tap IRAs, pension or other funds in the interim. Develop a realistic budget that includes all necessities and some luxuries. By budgeting time and money for “extras,” you won’t feel so guilty or deprived.
  8. Learn to recognize and avoid communication roadblocks. Open communication is the key to reducing anxiety. Avoid “all or nothing” thinking and other forms of irrational reasoning. Create a structure for talking about your situation. Schedule discussions with your spouse and children so you won’t “forget” to talk about important subjects.
  9. Recognize that a successful job search is a full time endeavor. Don’t let anyone in your family think that you’re available for child care, shopping or errands because you don’t go to “work” or have lots of “free time.”
  10. There are no perfect solutions. No decision is always “right.” Even those that once seemed logical may now seem to be mistakes. Yet, it doesn’t help to blame yourself or your spouse. Remind yourself that you tried your best and have learned from your experiences, just like you’ll learn from this one.

I’m happy to respond to any comments or questions about family stress or job search issues. I can be reached at 314-539-5309 or bschapiro@stlcc.edu.

About Barry Schapiro

Barry is the Workforce Solutions Group Practice Leader for Leadership and Professional Development. His experience includes delivery and management of business training in a variety of industries, with specialties in leadership, team development, generational diversity, and customer service. Twitter

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