30th Jan 2009

Dealing with a layoff

By Karen McHenry

In this economic downturn, the reality of layoffs has become a common occurrence. Although the first thing to come to mind may be the financial challenges created by a layoff, people often don’t recognize the emotional turmoil that downsizing can cause. The key to surviving a layoff is your reaction to the situation. If you have recently lost your job, there are a number of productive ways that you can deal with this life change and work towards finding a new job.

Expect A Variety of Emotions to Emerge. It is common for people who have been laid off to experience a wide range of emotions. You may feel happy and upbeat one day, and discouraged the next. Robert Lester, an experienced program manager and distance learning manager at a software company, recently went through a company downsizing. He observed, “After I was laid off, I felt 99% disappointment, but also 1% relief. After the initial shock, there was a flurry of activity where I was networking, analyzing opportunities, and updating my resume. Then things slow down a bit and you feel impatient and kind of in limbo.”

There is a grieving process that accompanies the loss of a job and many people experience denial, anger, sadness, bargaining, and eventually acceptance of their situation. Remember that you are more than your job and take some time to remind yourself of your accomplishments. Joan Van Vranken, a seasoned trainer at a Boston-area software company, was shocked by a layoff, but sees some benefit in it too. “I won’t lie,” she commented. “It was a blow. But in some ways, it was time for me to make a change and this forced my hand. I’m taking this as an opportunity to explore new things. To be honest, I wake up with more energy now than I’ve had in the past couple of years.”

Avoid Isolation. After experiencing a job loss, you may feel like retreating from the world. However, job search experts advise that you should resist this isolation. Recovery seldom begins when one is alone. Consider attending meetings of different organizations as a way of networking. Getting involved with social and civic groups, as well as professional and trade associations, are all good ways to combat isolation and also to network. You may also want to find a career counselor or join a support group. Staying socially active will help boost your energy levels and improve your attitude.

Create Structure in Your Day. The vast majority of people rely on structure in their lives. Even though you are not going to an office each morning, try creating structure in your day. Incorporate activities that will improve your physical and mental health, such as exercising, eating sensibly, getting sufficient sleep, and reflecting on your situation. Before the layoff, Robert Lester had worked as a remote employee, so he was familiar with organizing his day while working at his home office. He explained, “It’s helpful to get some exercise during a lunch break and also to work from a local coffee shop. My new job is looking for a new opportunity. It’s not realistic to think that I can do that eight hours a day, but I am familiar with working in a home office environment and recognize the importance of making contact with people during the day.”

Some people find it useful to start a journal where they can express the ups and downs of their day-to-day experiences. Other activities you may want to consider include: listening to music that you enjoy, writing a letter that expresses all your feelings and then shredding it, watching a funny movie, calling a friend, or volunteering for an organization in your community.

Focus on Self-Improvement. As you search for a new job, it can also be helpful to invest in knowledge that will help you in the workplace. For example, you might consider attending conference training sessions, pursuing certifications, or enrolling in courses that will give you an edge.

Van Vranken is exploring a new career in teaching and is considering getting a Masters degree in education. “I feel like I am busy all day, doing investigative work focused on university programs. I was certified to teach in New York, but I’m now figuring out what I need to do to get back into education. Once I got over shock of the layoff, I was determined to bring a positive attitude to the situation.” Lester is also considering a career change. He has a Bachelors degree in Graphic Design and is looking into Masters programs focusing on Art Education.

Plan the Job Search. Although you may be tempted to start looking for a new job right away after a layoff, think about taking a couple of weeks to work through your feelings. Grief can sabotage interviews, if you don’t take time to work through your emotions. When you feel ready, reach out to your network and bring your resume up-to-date.

Your resume should market your skills and potential, and it should describe how you made a difference in an organization with concrete results. Redefine your past job performance in a way that is results-oriented and that demonstrates assets to potential employers. As you embark on your job search, be sure to compartmentalize your efforts so they don’t dominate your entire day. Set aside four or five hours each day for researching, applying for, and interviewing for jobs. Use the remaining time for activities that enhance your physical and mental health.

A layoff can certainly be an unexpected blow. Accept the emotions as they come, take care of yourself, and when you feel ready, start the job search. Before you know it, you will be back in the workplace, stronger than ever.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.

Copyright © 2009 Karen McHenry

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