In the United States, a great many aspects of life are tied to work. The first question you are asked in a social setting is rarely what your life’s mission is, or how you show up for your local community. It is what you do for a living. Time and time again, the importance of work is linked to our value as human beings.
I’m an entrepreneur, and my most recent startup was a virtual events platform that launched within weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. I was the cofounder and CEO, patting myself on the back for our perfect timing at a moment when everyone was scrambling to figure out how to run events via the internet. It was also awful timing because a hundred companies launched all at once, trying to figure out the same problem.
I soon found myself unemployed—and attempting to navigate California’s unemployment system, a shock to the system for a tech-savvy person like me. Don’t take my word for it. An in-depth report released in August by the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office found the system was actually designed to be difficult in order to hold costs down. It didn’t take long for me to start sliding into a very serious depression.
I wasn’t alone. The loss of a job is a huge, disruptive life event that deprives you of the stability that might otherwise keep you from spiraling, and it cuts deep into your sense of self-worth. Though unemployment fell after the end of the lockdown phase of the pandemic, it’s been rising again in recent months, with high-profile layoffs in tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix.
With so much economic uncertainty, this is a good time to ask: What happens in your brain and your body when you lose a job—and what steps can you take to counter the negative effects?
Why do we suffer during unemployment?
When we lose a job, we’re not just losing income. We’re losing the friends we had on the job, and sometimes our professional network. We lose status and stability. Many of us lose a sense of purpose and meaning. Indeed, one 2019 study found that a loss of collective purpose was the main source of distress for people who are unemployed.
At the very least, work can provide a distraction from whatever else is going on in one’s life; if your home life is somehow rocky, it’s good to go outside of the home for eight or so hours a day. For some, the necessity of showing up at a workplace—virtually or in person—may prevent poor choices; the phrase “not on a school night” is a relatively commonly accepted excuse to not have that third drink, or to not binge-watch whatever the TV show du jour is deep into the night.
When a team of European researchers reviewed 294 scientific papers on unemployment and mental health, they found that over 90% of the studies linked joblessness with anxiety, mood disorders, or suicidal behavior. That’s probably not surprising—and yet many smart people (such as yours truly) still beat up on ourselves for being supposedly uniquely weak in the face of involuntary unemployment.
But if you’re unemployed and feeling anxious or depressed, guess what? The research says you’re having a perfectly normal response to a stressful situation.
Research indicates that the challenges of unemployment can be further amplified by the level of emotional intelligence someone has. People with higher emotional intelligence tend to show greater resilience in stressful situations, which makes sense. What people rarely stop to consider is that emotional intelligence itself is reduced in periods of high stress and anxiety, which can fray our relationships.
There’s another factor that makes mental health worse: stigmatization of the unemployed. As a 2019 series of experiments described, we are very quick to blame the people seeking work for their own unemployment (even when, for example, a global pandemic throws millions of people out of work)—and we tend to view the unemployed as less competent. This makes it even harder to get a job, once you’ve lost one. Needless to say, stigma doesn’t help job-seekers feel good about themselves.
There are studies of people who are not too adversely affected by unemployment. They consistently find that women aren’t as strongly affected as men, especially those who are poor or working class. The length of joblessness matters, too, of course—as time goes on, distress increases. Interestingly, people who worked more than 40 hours a week tend to have greater distress after a layoff, perhaps because of greater financial demands or just a greater need for work to structure life.
What helps people stay balanced during unemployment? According to one 2012 study published by the European Journal of Public Health, it really helps if your spouse is still employed—and if you have no kids to support. Social support matters, too. People who had strong friendships on the job suffer more, but we can mitigate that effect by turning to others in our life after the job disappears.
How can you minimize the suffering?
Here we come to the topic of self-care. Taking care of yourself won’t in itself secure you a new job; it can’t fix systemic problems with your country’s unemployment insurance. What it can do is increase your resilience and help you to get through what might be some of the most difficult days and nights of your life.
So, let’s break it down into a good old-fashioned internet list on ways to reduce the impact of unemployment on your mental health.
If many of them seem obvious, try to remember that unemployment hurts most people’s ability to stay healthy. When under high stress, self-care such as healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and nourishing social interactions are often the first victims.
As one paper puts it: “The unemployed are generally more passive than the average population, and . . . they are considerably less involved in social activities.” That’s what you’re fighting against—and we’re here to remind you of how to fight. There are more possible tips, of course; and not every one of these will work for you, in your individual case. But we think each one is worth considering.
Move your body. Build physical movement into your day, every day. If you can’t go to the gym a couple of times a week, then go for a hike. If you can’t hike, jog. If you can’t run, then walk. If walking is tough, take on some of the household tasks you never had time for when you had a job. This isn’t about staying in shape, though that’s good, too. It’s mainly about your mental health. Learn more about how exercise changes your brain.
Move your mind. You know what else is good for your brain? Reading a book. Video games and TV-watching are fun, but you should make it a point to diversify your mental portfolio. If you can teach yourself a new skill, that’s great. Even just playing Wordle or doing crossword puzzles will help. And here’s an essay about how reading can change your life.
Try to eat right. Take it from me: It’s so easy to sink into a pile of junk food when you’re unemployed, or perhaps not eat at all. But that wasn’t good for me, and it’s not good for you, either. “A growing body of research is discovering that food doesn’t just affect our waistline but also our moods, emotions, and even longer-term conditions like depression,” writes Kira Newman in Greater Good. “Our brains are physical entities, running on the energy that we put into our bodies, affected by shifts in our hormones, blood sugar levels, and many other biological processes.” Read more about how diet affects mental health.
Try to sleep. OK, easier said than done, like almost everything on this list. But there are many steps you can take to make sleep more likely: Cut back on caffeine, get more exercise, cut back on alcohol, and stay off screens at night, among other things. It’s worth the effort, because sleep affects your stress response and the quality of your relationships—which can in turn affect your ability to find a new job. Learn more about the science of sleep.
Seek out social connections. Decades of research suggest that nothing is more important to happiness and resilience than connections to other people—and that can be especially hard after you’ve lost a job. What saved me from an unemployment-fueled mental-health spiral was a friend who unceremoniously kicked me into shape, forced me to change my diet and exercise habits, and, by offering me a sense of purpose by working on a farm for a few weeks, gave me the distraction I needed to reorient myself. Here are some ways to cultivate social connections.
Practice self-compassion. When you’re unemployed, the world will tell you that you brought it on yourself—that’s a manifestation of stigma. The antidote to stigma is self-compassion, which is when you speak to yourself as you would a loved one who is having trouble. If that sounds hard, here are a couple of exercises that will help you build your self-compassion muscle: the self-compassion break and the self-compassion letter.
Give yourself some structure. Set an alarm, get up, put in two hours of job-searching, go for a walk, have lunch with a friend, put in two more hours searching, meditate for ten minutes, then start making a delicious dinner for your family. Whatever your particular schedule, having one will help keep you moving forward. Check out these ideas for structuring your day to feel less stressed.
Find yourself a purpose. The first items on this list had to do with taking care of yourself. This one is about taking care of other people. That’s because a purpose is different from a goal. Getting a new job, launching a new business, or going back to school are all good goals. But purpose is bigger than your goals. Your purpose is an answer to the question of why. Why do you want that job? Why do you want to go back to school? Why even get up in the morning? Purpose is the way that you want to matter in the world; it’s a sense that you’re making a difference. Unemployment can create a crisis of purpose, but you don’t have to take that crisis lying down. You can look around in your world and ask yourself: What can I do now to make a difference? For help, read this piece on finding your purpose in life.
Want to read more? OK, check out these five science-based tips for boosting resilience.