Ron Ashkenas in his article Navigating the Emotional Side of a Career Transition addresses an important aspect of job searching. Ron takes his discussion in a different direction than I will go in below, so I recommend after reading this blog, you also read his article.
Ron talks about issues encountered by someone making a voluntary job transition after a very long period (37 years) with a single employer. In my experience, this is a very rare event. People who voluntarily leave their employers, usually have a mindset that allows them to do so after much shorter periods, and they do so relatively frequently – so that in a 37 year career, I would expect to have met someone who has done this 5-10 times already. On the other hand, most people who have been stable (stagnant, depending on your perspective) at one company for decades and then find themselves in a career transition, usually are experiencing the event involuntarily. While they may encounter some of the emotions discussed in this article, in my experience advising and coaching job seekers, those emotions are usually trumped by grief.
There are 5 classic stages of loss and grief.
- 1. Denial and Isolation
The first reaction is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain. This is why I advise people to not make any decisions – for example regarding severance – the day of the layoff, and perhaps for a few days thereafter.
As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wane, reality and its pain re-emerge. We may not be ready. The intense emotion is redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our former co-workers or boss. Rationally, we may know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain. We feel guilty for being angry, and this can make us more angry. Remember that job loss can be traumatic for a spouse as well. In some ways their fears may be worse, because they may have no reference point about future career options in your field, and may perceive your prospects to be more bleak than they really are. For this reason I coach people to find a friend, not a spouse, to vent to during the frustrations that accompany a job search. It’s a good idea to warn the friend that you need them for this purpose; it will be easier for them to absorb because they are not as tied to the outcome as your spouse.
A normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control. This may manifest itself as genuine bargaining – going back to our former employer and asking or begging for the job back, or more rationally, negotiating different, more tailored severance terms to meet your specific needs. It can also appear as preoccupation with “what if” questions – what if I would have taken that transfer 2 years ago? what if I would have gotten that MBA at night? what if I would have been more active in my professional organization and met more people who could help me now? Eventually these will be important lessons learned, but we shouldn’t dwell on them now.
A doctor once told me that if you have a reason to be depressed, being depressed is normal. People who ‘suffer from Depression’ are depressed when they shouldn’t be. Loss of a job is a valid reason to be depressed. But it can last too long, and if it does, seek professional medical help.
This is where we need to get to as quickly as possible after a job loss. In my experience, you can’t avoid going through the 4 stages before this one to get to acceptance, but you can accelerate the process by recognizing the stages, and preparing yourself for, and pushing yourself on to, the next one.