Grieving the Loss of a Job

By Dr. Larry Pfaff

As more organizations deal with the slow economy, there is a tendency toward increased staff reductions. Although organizations have learned to refer to them as down sizing, right sizing, or some other politically correct name, the fact remains that people are being fired from their jobs. Some organizations try to provide services to their former employees to help them with the transition. Usually these are in the form of outplacement services to help the person find new employment. We often hear about the economic impact that these "reorganizations" have on both the employees and the company. In this article I will address the psychological impact on the individual who has lost his/her job.

Much has been written about the stages of grief that a person experiences as a result of the death of a loved one. In recent years we have learned that people experience these same stages of grief when they experience any significant loss in their lives. Since work is a major contributor to a person's sense of self-esteem, the loss of a job can have serious psychological consequences. We know that there are distinct stages of grief that people experience during loss. Those stages are: shock; anger; sadness; acceptance. I will examine each stage as it applies to the loss of a job.

Shock - This occurs immediately upon learning that one no longer has a job. Typically, the person learns of the job loss suddenly and without warning. Emotionally there is the feeling that "this cannot be happening to me." It is often difficult for the person to even believe that they have lost their job. People will say things like, "I thought that I must be having a bad dream. I never imagined that this could ever happen to me!" Some will experience the shock as a sense of denial ("There must be some sort of mistake. I am not the person who should be let go!") This initial stage of shock can be accompanied by emotional outbursts or reactions to unrelated issues either at home or elsewhere. Often the person will intensify his/her activities in other areas of life, such as hobbies or social activities. There is often a feeling of emotional emptiness.

Anger - As the initial sense of shock passes, there is a transition to anger, hurt, fear or a combination of all three. The person has thoughts such as "How could they be so cruel to me after all I have done for them?" "I have been so supportive to the company and they do this to me!" There can be great fear as exhibited in thoughts such as, "How will I and my family survive?" Sometimes during this stage the person will be prone to intense arguments if they are still at work. Or, they may have more arguments with friends and family. They may contemplate or actually take revengeful actions toward the company or their supervisor. They may contact coworkers to get them to take their side as a way to hurt the company.

Sadness - Once the anger has passed, often there is a period of sadness that sets in. There is the realization that the job or career has truly ended. There is the sense that it is too late to recover. Nothing can be done to return them to their old job. Some people will even feel as though they will never enjoy work again to the same level. There may be much reminiscing about the happy times in the old job, followed by extreme sadness at its loss. At the extreme, there may be a proneness to depression as exhibited by excessive crying and/or sleeping. There may be serious withdrawal from friends and normal activities. When severe, professional counseling can be extremely helpful or even essential.

Acceptance - Once the sadness has passed, there will be a sense of acceptance and rebuilding in the person's life. Conversations about the old job and former employer will be more businesslike and objective. There will be a more objective view of the current situation and more of a sense of looking to the future. There will be a realization that "It hasn't been easy, but I understand what happened and can move on from here." Sometimes there is even a sense of relief that the grieving is over. Some people will make statements such as, "Even though I'm scared, the future holds promise for me." Getting to this point can be greatly facilitated by finding a new job.

Losing one's job has a major psychological impact on both the person and his/her family and friends. So, as you encounter people who have been "right-sized" out of work, try to be as understanding as possible about the emotion stages they are experiencing. Be supportive. If they are close friends, you may even help them understand the grief that they are going through.

Please send any comments, questions or suggestions to Dr. Pfaff at [email protected].

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