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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Job Strategies: Recovering what you’ve lost in this recession

The comment was a show-stopper, at least for me. Sitting in on a small group discussion between laid-off workers and a finance professional, I was listening for new insights on how the recession is affecting people.

I got an answer I didn’t expect when the facilitator asked participants what they had lost in the economic downturn.

Taking their cue from the leader’s expertise in finance, most people talked about economic losses. But the group was small enough to hear a low intake of breath when one woman in her 40s said: “I’ve lost the laughter. I used to laugh all the time, and now I just don’t.”

There was a brief silence while others around the table nodded or looked down; then the facilitator picked up the conversation and we rolled forward, wrapping the woman’s comment into the general conversation.

Even though the woman did laugh a little when someone made a joke, I thought I understood what she meant about “losing the laughter.” It’s one thing to laugh as a social gesture, but it’s an entirely different matter to feel lighthearted enough to simply laugh.

The woman’s comment got me thinking about the things we lose when our work lives get upended and about the losses people have felt during this economy in general. In the weeks since, I’ve been listening more carefully as I meet with job seekers, to hear their own stories of loss. Here are some of the answers I received, either directly or embedded in our conversations:

  • Dreams. Twin Cities author and grief specialist Ted Bowman (“Finding Hope When Dreams Have Shattered,” was the first person I ever met who spoke about the loss of dreams as collateral damage from other losses. For example, he explained, when parents lose a child to death, they suffer the first horrific loss and then the cascading losses of the hopes they had held for that child’s future. The dreams are gone.
Likewise, I’ve always known that the loss of a job can interrupt a person’s dreams and goals or put them on the back burner altogether. But in listening more closely these past few weeks, I’m hearing a deeper theme in my clients’ conversations. Not only are they postponing specific goals, but many are reluctant to make plans of any sort. Gone are conversations about retirement to warmer climates, second-career business startups and even the relatively modest European vacations people used to save for.

  • Self-esteem. I’ve heard this answer so many times, I’ve lost count. Executives who had to make cuts feel powerless to save their teams. Workers who got cut feel devalued. Workers whose jobs were spared feel ineffectual against the overwhelming tide of projects. No one, it seems, feels good about work these days.
Of course, where self-esteem goes, confidence is sure to follow. Devalued, ineffectual, powerless workers are not likely to be confident. The result is a type of Mobius strip where negative emotions march on without pause. Job search at this point is tricky, as every rejection gets supersized in the worker’s mind and the will to overcome obstacles erodes.

  • Energy and health. Many studies link health problems with unemployment and unhappiness at work. Energy, too, is affected by employment problems. One solution to both issues is to improve exercise and nutrition. Ironically, this low-cost remedy can be elusive to the unemployed, even with their wealth of free time. Perhaps the loss of dreams plays a part, but many seem unable to structure the time for their own good.
  • Social activities and fun. As it turns out, a number of my job seekers tell me they’ve been able to enjoy their families more during the recession, even while letting go of costly activities they used to do together. But my still-employed or overemployed clients? No, they’re not having fun. There’s a kind of wartime mentality raging in these households, where time, money and perhaps laughter are managed closely. Plainly speaking, many of these people look worn out.
This hasn’t been an upbeat litany of recessionary woes, has it? Nevertheless, I do believe that problems are easier solved once they’re named. Here’s your challenge: If you see yourself on this list, it’s time to take action. Regardless of the toll this recession has taken, there’s at least one thing that you still own -- the right, and the responsibility, to tend to your own happiness.

This transition may last a long time; don’t let these years be the black hole in your story. Fill them with memories of good times and do what you can to recover your losses.

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