Understanding and Counseling Clients with Job Loss
By Shelly Trent
After being in a job I loved for over 16 years, I was unexpectedly let go. I had been with the organization for a long time, enjoyed my work, had good relationships with my coworkers and clients, and was generally happy in my position. I had plans to retire from the organization. Then, one day, it all changed - and I didn’t see it coming.
In my role, I interacted with thousands of people and was in a high-profile position. Dealing with the loss of my job was bad enough –but even worse was the loss of thousands of relationships with coworkers and clients I had come to know over 16 years. It felt as if someone died.
In the days and weeks that followed, I felt empty and hollow. I realized, as I struggled to understand what happened, that I was going through stages of grief.
Within a few hours of being let go, I started working on my resume, reaching out to my network of contacts, and making arrangements to meet others for coffee and lunch. I thought I could jump right in and get another job. I told myself I’d be okay.
Every night, I dreamed I was with my coworkers like nothing had happened. They had to keep explaining to me that I didn’t work there anymore. During the day, I kept thinking of tasks to complete for work, only to remember that I no longer needed to do them.
I decided that maybe now I would have time to pursue my writing and speaking career and be a professional career coach. However, for all my eagerness to make being unemployed work, I was not earning a salary. My positive attitude turned sour. It turned to anger.
Once I realized that achieving an income was going to be very difficult now, I got mad. I wasn’t going to be able to chase the dream of just being a writer, speaker, and coach. I felt cheated that –I wouldn’t be able to retire early. I also felt annoyed that I wasn’t getting any offers following interviews, presumably due to my age.
I also felt hurt by some people who I thought were dear friends. I didn’t understand their turning away from me, but I tried to remember that not everyone feels comfortable talking about uncomfortable situations.
When I first lost my job, hundreds of people reached out. Just like when someone dies, everyone is there for you for a week or two, but then life goes on. They all move forward while I was still grieving.
I started to feel lost in the shuffle of life, as if I no longer really had anything to offer. Much of my thinking was, “What could I have done differently?” I was stuck in the past, grieving for the work I lost, wishing I could go back in time.
I started to think of what I could change and I began volunteering again. Maybe I should get new clothes and dress professionally for all the networking events I was attending. I needed to look better than my fifty years.
After months of going on interview after interview, I still had no offers. I started thinking that something must be wrong with me if no one wanted to hire me. I started to doubt myself.
There were days when I didn’t do anything. I didn’t want to see anyone or go anywhere. I didn’t want to think or face reality. I missed my work and my colleagues. I WAS my job. How could I move forward when no other job would make me as happy?
When I was unemployed six months, my husband and I took a vacation out of state. During that week, we were so busy that I didn’t have time to think about looking for a job. When I came home, I felt different, lighter. Just being away from the stress of the job search was a welcomed relief.
My thinking had changed. I no longer felt like I needed to hurry into a new position. I was already teaching part-time, volunteering, writing articles and book chapters, making presentations, and I had many professional friends who were cheering me on. Yes, I had that before my vacation, but now it seemed to be enough. I was enjoying what I was doing!
A Different Kind of Career Counseling
I knew what to do in a job loss because, as a career development professional, I have helped others who have gone through the same thing. Although I was following my own action-oriented advice, I was still struggling with the loss of identity, the lack of self-esteem, and, of course, the financial stress. I was getting caught in up the job search and ignoring the counseling I really needed.
Here are ways career counselors may help others who are facing a job loss. It is important to realize that our clients can’t avoid grief; grief is normal, but you want them to avoid getting stuck.
- Help your clients maintain a positive outlook.
- Persuade them to talk about their strengths and the blessings in their lives.
- Suggest that your clients keep a journal with thoughts about their struggles, but mostly about the affirmations.
- Encourage clients to meet with a financial planner and/or a credit counselor.
- Urge them to visit their physician for a checkup; blood pressure rises with stress, and depression can cause reduced immunity.
- Recommend a local job search support group so your clients can spend time with others who are in a similar situation.
- Support clients by challenging them to get out, exercise, be with others, and get involved in activities they enjoy.
- Provide extra interview guidance. In an interview setting, depression can’t always be hidden well.
- Sometimes, job loss can cause depression so severe that it can lead to suicide. If someone needs counseling outside of your comfort zone or qualifications, help your client find a suitable mental health professional who deals with grief and depression.
- Help your clients separate their identity and self-worth from their job. I struggled with this more than any other issue.
It’s not simply the loss of a job; it’s a paralyzing emotional roller coaster likened to the death of a parent or spouse. Remember that as a career counselor, it’s not so much about helping your clients find a job or explore career options. It’s the counseling relationship that helps them move beyond the grief.
Shelly Trent, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CAE, is an HR and career development professional who has spent her life guiding others toward lifelong learning, career growth, and personal enrichment. She is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Business at Indiana University’s Southeast campus, where she teaches business students about career planning, business behaviors, etiquette, and job search. Shelly is a former associate editor for Career Convergence magazine and is a contributing author to the anthologies Humans@Work and Compassion@Work. She can be reached at shellytrent@LIVE.COM.