How not to lose your mind when you lose your job

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If you work in banking and you lose your job, you have reason to be afraid. Records at the UK Financial Services Authority show that 72% of people in the City of London who lost their jobs between January 2012 and January 2013 have so far failed to find comparable new ones.

Fear, however, is the mind killer. Losing a good job hurts, but losing it and failing a new life is worse. A  new study on behalf of the British Sociological Association suggests some mental approaches to the horror of professional rejection are better than others.

A team of academics from the University of Bath and the University of Surrey in the UK studied a group of 13 unemployed professionals aged between 44 and 60 over a two-year period. There were no ex-investment bankers in the group, which did include former IT consultants, ex-analysts at insurance companies and former accountants.

No one in the study group managed to find a new job that compared to their previous one. “Nearly all, however, had to contend with much less well-paid and less powerful positions than they had held earlier,” said the academics.  Being laid off was very traumatic for everyone, so much so that even two years later they still talked about it.

But some people at the end of two years were significantly worse off than others. While all suffered from "fragmented identity'" through the loss of their high-powered careers, some coped better than others.

The academics identified three different strategies for dealing with being laid off:

1. Seeing it as ‘a temporary derailment.’ In this case, the redundancy was seen as a setback from which the individual’s career would eventually recover. Matthew, a former company director, who had sent out 700 job applications was following this strategy. He oscillated between feeling very positive about his chances of finding a new job whenever he spoke to people in his old industry who buoyed him up, and very negative whenever he didn’t.

2. Seeing it as a ‘the end of the line.’ In this case, the redundancy was seen as a dreadful career event from which the individual concerned would never recover. This approach was embodied by Heather, a former manager at a charity, who became immersed in victimhood, introspection and self-doubt.

3. Seeing it as a ‘moratorium.’ In this case, redundancy was seen as time out, or more specifically as a time for ‘living in the present without being overburdened by the past or the future.’ Michael, a former top advertising executive, was following this strategy. Despite losing his highly paid, highly liked, advertising job unfairly, Michael had become a jack of all trades and was willing to do anything.

Of the three strategies, the academics concluded that Michael’s was by far the best. Two years after being made redundant, Matthew was trapped in a cycle of wildly fluctuating emotions, Heather was ensconced in a deep funk, but Michael was out there getting on with things.

“I’ve done, you know, various jobs – anything and every­thing,” Michael told the academics. “The Christmas before last, somebody I knew runs a distribution company, they distribute wine to restaurants and November and December is their busiest time … and I knew November and December were going to be fairly quiet for me, so I went and I drove a white van delivering wine for two months.”

Michael had also painted a house for a friend and said he was spending a lot of time ferrying his daughters around. “Broadly speaking, I’ll do anything!” he said.

Apart from a willingness to do whatever, the academics identified a few other differentiators which helped Matthew cope: he had no self-pity, he saw redundancy as just another episode in his life and not as something that altered his fundamental character, and he came up with a realistic sociological explanation for why he’d been made redundant – without blaming himself or anyone else in particular (“I was too old and too expensive for my employer”).

The academics concluded that the best-adapted redundant professionals were those who, “were prepared to forsake hopes of a return to high-powered jobs and displayed flexibility, resourcefulness and opportunism in adapting to their reduced circumstances.” These people didn’t rail against the forces stacked against them. They didn’t rage against ageist employers and the unfairness of it all. They just made the most of their new situation.

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