Millions have been out of a job for 6 months or longer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It may be contributing to a mental health crisis.
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When I was being laid off in the summer of 2020, my manager concluded his little speech by saying that “luckily,” my layoff wasn’t effective immediately — I had a month where I could be technically still employed while looking for new work, which “should make things easier getting hired again,” he said.
It’s no secret among people looking for new work that it’s easier to find a new one while you have a job. And it’s true that employers likely are attracted to candidates who are still working but looking for something new because it shows ambition.
But it turns out there might be more to the story than that. Our mental well-being might also be a pretty big factor.
When we’re employed, we’re often more confident, our self-esteem is higher, and we’re less likely to be haunted by worry about how we’re going to pay our rent. This makes it easier to appear professional, ambitious, and, well, hire-able.
“Most people have a sense of who they are based on the value they offer to themselves and others,” says Sue English, licensed family therapist in Naperville, Illinois. And when we’re good at our job, we tend to feel like we offer something of value to others.
When we’re unemployed, this is less likely to be true — but not just because we lost our income and benefits (though they certainly play a role). It’s also because we’ve lost a part of our identity.
This is especially true in the United States, where there’s so much importance placed on “what you do” as a part of who you are. (Think about it: How early do we start asking children what they want to be when they’re older?)
This phenomenon — called “enmeshment” — isn’t new. It’s well documented among people in high-pressure careers that require years of work to pursue. After a while, the lines between people’s individual identity, or who they are, can blur with their career or what they do.
But it can — and does — happen to all of us. In fact, in the United States in particular (where we value individualism), we tend to assume that when someone loses a job — even if that someone is us — they must have done something wrong.
An older 2013 study, for example, found that unemployed white-collar U.S. workers tended to blame themselves more for their job loss than unemployed workers in Israel did.
However, in the corporate world, layoffs happen pretty regularly, and they have very little, if anything, to do with individual performance. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic forced massive shutdowns across the country, and millions of Americans were laid-off, furloughed, or had their pay cut.
According to a Pew Research Center Survey, 6 months after the pandemic hit, 25% of U.S. adults said they or someone in their household was laid off or lost their job. About half of Americans experienced job or wage loss.
This had huge economic implications. But it also had — and will continue to have — a huge impact on people’s mental health.
“The unexpected loss of a job can affect an individual’s self-worth, financial security, and relationships, leading to being susceptible to mental health issues,” explains English.
“When we can feel rejected by our boss and abandoned by our company, it can lead to believing we are not as valued as others or capable of producing valuable work.”
And then, over time, if we stop believing in our own value, we lose our hope for the future. “[It] can result in mood shifts including chronic feelings of emptiness, inappropriate/intense anger, withdrawal, and even self-hatred,” English explains.
It may also impact one’s physical well-being.
“Stress levels will increase the longer time goes by without ample possibilities for necessary change,” explains English. “Prolonged stress response can lead to high cortisol levels and increased blood pressure that can suppress and affect our immune system response.
“Sometimes individual’s outward behaviors can communicate what they don’t feel safe expressing emotionally, including depleted energy, appetite changes, sleep disturbances, and a decrease in basic self-care routines,” she continues.
A 2014 study also found an increase in mortality rates among workers in their 50s and 60s who were laid off.
The impact gets worse over time
This is why the longer you’re unemployed, the more your mental health is likely impacted.
According to a 2014 Gallop Poll, 1 in 5 Americans without a job for a year or more were also undergoing treatment for depression. That’s roughly double the rate of depression among those who’ve only been looking for a new job for 5 weeks or less.
Of course, the risk of mental health impacts is greatest if the unemployment posed an immediate threat to survival, as
But research has shown that losing your job can have a detrimental effect on your mental health and physical health even if you didn’t experience serious financial strain.
An older 2009 study found that in countries with high wealth inequality and weak unemployment protections, people who were unemployed had worse mental health outcomes.
The United States has the highest income inequality of any G7 country, and its unemployment protections — even with the Cares Act — are relatively weak, so people in the United States are at greater risk.
A 2013 study also found that mental health outcomes were worse when people were aware of the systemic issues that led to their job loss because they felt frustrated and powerless in their ability to change their circumstances.
If you develop a mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem as a result of being unemployed, those conditions can then make it more difficult for you to look for or land new jobs.
“A person fearful of rejection or failure may even avoid looking for a job and may postpone or prolong the process, actually contributing to greater depression and increasing their anxiety,” explains Carrie Krawiec, licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, Michigan.
This is especially true if these mental health conditions are left untreated.
For example, if you experience depression but don’t recognize the signs, you might call yourself “lazy.” Then, Krawiec explains, “this may cause [someone] to feel more negative about themselves or their family.”
This can also lead to other issues, such as increased reliance on substances and alcohol to cope with the anxiety and sadness, compounding the issue.
During the pandemic, women accounted for 55% of the 20.5 million jobs lost in April 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This represented an abrupt, disappointing reversal from the previous December, when women had more payroll jobs than men for the first time in a decade.
Now, many of these unemployed women are questioning whether they’ll ever be able to return to work (and their old identity) after a difficult year with minimal or no childcare. This has made some of them feel stuck, anxious, or depressed — even as jobs open back up again.
“The anxiety and low self-esteem could contribute to someone missing potential interviews,” says Krawiec, “or not trying for ones that they feel would be too hard or unworthy.”
If you think your mental health has been impacted by prolonged unemployment, you may want to consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
Depression and anxiety are both treatable, and if you’re able to manage these mental health conditions, you might find it easier to look for work again.
Looking into career coaching or a job program may be another good thing to try. Some of the best ones
If you’re unsure of where to start, consider searching for “career coaching near me” or “job programs near me” online. For mental health resources, Psych Central’s hub “Your Guide to Finding Mental Health Support” may be a good place to start.
Simone M. Scully is a journalist who writes about health, science, parenting, and the environment. Outside of work, she’s usually camping or hiking in a national park with her husband, toddler, and rescue beagle. Find out more about her work at simonescully.com.