Our jobs not only give us a way to earn a living, but they also define part of who we are and how others see us. When meeting someone for the first time, a typical question is “What do you do?” Our jobs are valuable. They provide: status, an entity that facilitates a sense of belonginess and opportunities for socialization. So, when a job is lost, many feel as if a part of themselves has been lost. Often, people report that loosing a job is like going through a divorce.

Job loss, like other forms of loss, brings about a variety of emotions. These emotional reactions are affected by many factors including age, personality, coping skills, financial condition, employment outlook, family situation and the length of job tenure. The longer the job was held, the more difficult the loss.  Concurrent financial stress, deep attachment to the job, unrelated emotional difficulties and other losses can make coping with job loss more difficult. The most common emotional reactions to job loss include: shock and disbelief, anxiety, depression, embarrassment, loss of control, distrust of employers, self-blame, loss of confidence and anger.

Job loss often brings about grief defined as the emotional, mental and behavioral reaction to the loss of something closely tied to one’s identity.  Birkel and Miller (1998), Australian therapists, liken the emotional response to loosing a job to the Kubler-Ross stages of death and dying. Birkel and Miller refer to this process as the e wave or emotional wave.

The first stage of the e wave is shock and denial. “This can’t be true ?”,”How can this be happening to me?” are common thoughts in the initial phases if job loss. This may be accompanied by an emotional numbing. Encouraging the person to talk about their experience and providing a listening ear is helpful. It is important to inform others about job loss and not hold this information in as it adds to the overall burden.

The second e wave stage is fear and panic. “I’ll have to file bankruptcy”, “My career is over” are typical responses. Here, anxiety-reduction coping techniques can be quite beneficial.  Relaxation techniques, calming self-talk and thought reframing exercises are recommended interventions.

The third e wave stage is the anger stage.  In this situation, anger is a natural response to the loss of power and influence.  It is essential to express the anger in positive and constructive ways.  Rather than responding to the boss in an angry or hostile fashion, anger may be channeled through physical means (exercise, punching bag), talking it out or through creative outlets (writing/journaling, art).

The fourth e wave stage is bargaining.  “If you give me another chance, I’ll be the best employee this company has ever had”, “I’ll work harder and longer for the same pay and correct all my mistakes” are thoughts typical of this stage.  These thoughts represent an attempt to try to regain some control. However, this approach is not constructive or realistic. Looking for constructive ways to approach unemployment can help create a greater sense of control and direction. Examples include taking classes, seeking training opportunities and revising the resume.

The fifth e wave stage is depression which is characterized by guilt, feelings of worthlessness, lack of energy and motivation. Other physical symptoms may include insomnia and appetite disturbance.  Helpful interventions include tasks that provide structure and goal achievement. Unemployed individuals should get up and get dressed, exercise (studies have shown exercise reduces depression and anxiety) and make their daily job the process of looking for a job. Seeking help from a mental health professional can also be quite helpful, even necessary if the depression is severe or prolonged.

The sixth and final e wave stage is temporary acceptance. It is called “temporary” because most people continue to have sadness, disbelief, etc., originating from the other stages, that vacillates throughout the job loss experience. This stage is characterized by greater acceptance and integration of the job loss. Individuals are able to job seek more effectively by reflecting on where they have been and where they are going career-wise. This greater level of job loss acceptance is facilitated by the ability to create emotional distance from the job loss experience itself.

The emotional wave of job loss is not experienced by everyone in the same way. Some people may not go through all the stages and others may go through them in a different order. The presentation of the e wave is meant to help with the understanding of the significant emotional experiences associated with loss of employment and to provide some general guidelines for management.

Holly Houston, Ph.D.