Dealing with the Fear of Job Loss – How to Weather Challenging Emotional Times

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Job loss ranks as one of the most difficult events one can experience, ranking almost as highly in stress as divorce or death of a spouse or parent. An often-overlooked casualty of these events is the individuals who ‘survive’ layoffs and remain within their organizations. This article examines fear of job loss and how it impacts our community at large. In other words, what does the fear of losing our jobs have on us and what should we be aware of when managing these concerns?

Fear of Job Loss: What are its Effects?

As mentioned above, fear of job loss is one of the most stressful life experiences, as it affects various aspects of our lives including:

1) Physical and emotional well-being - Recently, researchers from the University of Michigan have found that the fear of job loss is more damaging to our emotional and physical health than losing our job. In fact, it has stronger links to poor health and depression than actual job loss or a brush with a life-threatening illness. (i)

2) Professional life - Not surprisingly, fear of job loss is particularly evident in environments where layoffs have recently occurred. This leads to negative outcomes including lower employee morale, decreased productivity and organizational commitment, less risk-taking behaviour, and widespread mistrust of senior management. These outcomes undoubtedly have significant negative consequences on both the organization and its employees.

3) Family life - Evidence also suggests that these fears can negatively impact various aspects of our family life. For example, marital relationships can suffer, as the financial worries and pressures predominate at-home conversations and lead to a strained environment. Rather than providing an escape from the concerns of the office, it can be a continuation of this stress. More recently, research has found that there are also ‘spillover’ effects on our children, including negative impacts on their academic performance and their future attitudes towards work. (ii)

Clearly, fear of job loss permeates various aspects of our lives and can lead to negative outcomes. The following list provides some potentially valuable strategies to consider when dealing with our fear of job loss. Although these items may not entirely eliminate our concerns, they may make them a little easier to manage and eliminate their harmful physiological or psychological effects.

Strategies for Dealing with Fear of Job Loss -

Although we do not have control over our current economic climate, there are various things we can do to manage the effects our fears may have on our physical and mental well-being. One of the aspects that make fear of job loss so difficult to deal with is the helplessness we feel towards our future. The following provides some ways in which we can begin to take control of this ‘monster in our closet’ and stay positive:

1) Confront the source of your fears – An important part of managing these unsettling emotions is to identify the source of your fears. For example, are your worries based on the rumour mill that is rampant in the office? If this is the case, perhaps it is best to disengage from these conversations as much as possible. Or, are they based on the countless ‘doom and gloom’ articles that are being published and talked about on a daily basis? If yes, maybe it is time to read something else. Regardless of where they come from, it is important to evaluate the credibility of the source and its relevance to your current situation.

2) Identify your fears - As Franklin D. Roosevelt once surmised, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Although this may be easier said than done, it is important to identify our fears. Unfortunately, our minds have a way of running out of control and ‘catastophizing’ worse case scenarios, in which we invariably get caught. Therefore, it is important to pinpoint what our biggest fears are and deal with them head on.

For example, are we afraid of losing our home? Not affording our current standard of living? Not being able to put food on the table? By identifying our fears, we can engage in more ‘rational thinking’ by determining what is the likelihood of these events happening and taking steps to minimize their occurrence.

3) Accepting the realities of job uncertainty - Although it may seem like the current economic climate has made job security a thing of the past, working with the same organization for an entire career has been the exception rather than the rule for some time now. A widely used industry statistic is that you can expect to change jobs between 5-7 times in your lifetime. Today, knowledge workers are looking to hone their skills and no longer have as strong a sense of loyalty to their organizations, given the developments over the past 20-30 years. A book written several years ago by Daniel Pink appropriately labelled the North American job market as a ‘Free Agent Nation.’

Although this may be difficult to accept, it may help buffer the impacts of job uncertainty. In particular, it is helpful to remind ourselves that impermanence is the current reality and will continue to be, even after this latest economic situation is behind us. This will also empower us to take charge of our career and professional development and focus our attention on maintaining our employability.

4) Stay in shape – Eating right and maintaining our exercise routines are important things we can do to fight the negative impacts of elevated stress. Our physical and emotional well-being are intricately tied and if our bodies are not taken care of, the risk of experiencing further complications of elevated stress is increased.

5) Seek support from family and friends – It is important to find an outlet to share your fears and concerns. As the saying goes, it is not healthy to keep things bottled up inside. Research has shown that social support buffers the impacts of various negative emotional states including depression, stress, and anxiety. (iii)

The most important thing to remember is to seek out someone who can be appropriately supportive and who will be able to provide an objective perspective. As mentioned previously, it would not be productive to seek support from someone who has a high anxiety level and/or who naturally catastrophizes situations, as this will only add to your fears. Identifying the right ‘support person’ in terms of your emotional needs will be the key to using your social support network to its fullest potential.

6) Remember you are more than your job – We spend so much of our time at work that it is not surprising that for many of us, there is a risk of defining ourselves through our work. Indeed, this ‘loss of professional identity’ is one of the most challenging aspects of job loss reported by individuals experiencing career transition. As our concerns rise about our uncertain future, it is helpful to focus on other areas of our lives where things are going well, including our marriage, children, community involvement, etc. We need to remember that there are other important aspects of our lives than just our jobs. Keeping in touch with our ‘whole’ person can allow us to stay grounded during particularly challenging periods.

7) Remember who you are – The above list has reviewed some promising strategies for dealing with our fears surrounding potential job loss. However, each of us deals with this situation differently. The key is to identify which (if any) of the above fits your situation or needs. There is a multitude of ways to handle these emotions. Only you know which pathways are the right ones for you to choose.

Clearly, the current economic climate has created unprecedented job losses, which have had devastating impacts on those affected. However, as we can each attest, it has also led to additional strains on our entire community, as the ‘global economic crisis’ still predominates our conversations with family and friends. Therefore, it is crucial for each of us to recognize the potential impacts of these conditions on our own lives and take the steps necessary to combat them. This article presented several strategies that may be helpful in this regard, depending on your situation and needs. Despite the hardship these challenging periods may bring, maintaining our focus and persevering through them are important landmarks in our personal and professional development.

 

Craig Dowden, Ph.D.

Managing Director

André Filion & Associates Inc

References

(i) See http://www.sph.umich.edu/news_events/findings/fall06/future/one.htm. The URL for the research study on which this conclusion can be found at:  http://www.psc.isr.umich.edu/pubs/pdf/rr08-650.pdf

(ii) See http://www.iveybusinessjournal.com/view_article.asp?intArticle_ID=570 for a comprehensive review. For individual studies please reference Effects of parents' job insecurity on children's work beliefs and attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology (1998), 83, 112-118 or; Parents job insecurity affects children’s grade performance through the indirect effects of beliefs in an unjust world and negative mood, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (1999), 4, 347-355.

(iii) Please reference pages 780-782 of the Encyclopedia of Health and Behavior (2004) published by the American Psychological Association.

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