How to beat the unemployment blues

Most people strive to be happy or to experience a feeling of well-being. Normally that level of happiness drops because of some traumatic experience such as divorce, sickness, death of a family member or unemployment.

According to Kerstin Jatho, one of eight qualified positive psychology life coaches in South Africa, people’s happiness levels recover and return to normal after they’ve gone through such events, the exception being unemployment.

“You very seldom manage to get back to your original level of well-being after being unemployed, especially if it has been for a long period,” she says.

According to Statistics South Africa’s latest Quarterly Employment Survey, the expanded unemployment rate during the first quarter of this year was 36.4%. This means officially 6.2m people are unemployed.

Jatho says unemployment has nothing to do with a person’s self-worth. However, the person loses trust in society and may never regain that trust. 

Louis Meijer, executive and business coach at Change Partners, describes himself as an engineer by training, a project manager by profession, and an executive coach by design and passion.

He is no stranger to unemployment – a few years ago, the company where he was managing director was restructured down and its entire staff contingent was retrenched. 

When you have been in a position of leadership in a company where people looked to you for decision-making and support, you feel without direction when suddenly all that is gone. “It becomes lonely. All the support, of having to go to work and being around people is gone,” says Meijer.

According to Jatho the most natural thing for people who lose their jobs is to withdraw from all relationships. This causes loneliness which is very dangerous psychologically, she warns.

“Giving up is easy, and a very quick way to a downward spiral. They need to be assured that they are not a lesser kind of person because of unemployment. It is nothing shameful,” Jatho explains.

Emotional experience

Meijer says the way you experience unemployment largely depends on what you do with all the free time you now have. He read everything he could lay his hands on. He also had lots of coffee with lots of people in lots of coffee shops.

He says that one of the books he read gave a long list of things you should do when you lose your job. What struck him was that looking for a job was not amongst the top 10 bullet points.

“That was very enlightening. The advice was more about how to relieve anxiety, like taking up a hobby, or doing voluntary work. They recommend you get involved in all sorts of activities besides finding work.”

The family members of the unemployed person should realise this and not add to the anxiety by pushing too much. This allows the person to keep on exploring.

Meijer spent months exploring possibilities. However, it is important for people to reflect on how long they can survive before “hitting the economic wall”.

An associate of Meijer’s, who started his own business, determined that he could last at least six months with no income while developing the business before he would hit that wall. He decided that he would not be worried during that time.

“You cannot fret every day. Whatever number you come up with, work hard at not fretting during that period. The more you fret, the less chance you have of getting yourself together again.”

If you do go for interviews, your stress levels or apprehension and even desperation will show. People will sense this. “That is the last thing you want to project when you are going for interviews,” he says. 

Regaining confidence

To rebuild confidence or remain confident is quite challenging, because it is a component of feeling competent. Unemployed people often question whether they are still competent and able to make meaningful contributions, says Jatho.

People gain confidence through acknowledgement from others and the environment they find themselves in. Unemployment destroys that.  

She advises people to work on their inner confidence. “Think about the things you are naturally good at. Your brain will want to tell you what you are not good at.”

Look for evidence of where you were good at something. You need to convince yourself that you have been good at performing a particular task and that you can do it. Think of moments in your life that you were proud of. Even if you were not particularly successful at that moment, remember why it evoked feelings of pride.

Set small goals. Confidence will only be built by setting small goals and achieving them. Work on your CV one day, prepare for an interview, give yourself pep talks. Celebrate your little wins.

Jatho says once the person feels stronger it might be a good time to reflect on whether they want to go back into a formal workplace.

What now? Meijer decided that he did not want to return to what he had been doing for the better part of 30 years: “Pursuing a new career can certainly bring a new challenge. It can also bring a new level of satisfaction that will bolster your confidence. The thinking must be: ‘I can expect to battle a bit longer because, after all, I am trying something new.’”

He encourages people to consider alternative opportunities before settling on a new direction.

Network, network, network 

While exploring, use your networks. You will be surprised at how many people you know, says Meijer.

He explains that you will achieve little by sitting on your couch with your phone in your hand. You have to get out there and talk to people. “Invest in yourself – if you have the opportunity to do additional courses to improve your qualifications, do it.”

It is important to be proactive. Trust that there are opportunities everywhere. “Hone your senses to see them and to go after them with a sense of competence, looking forward to the adventure,” adds Meijer. 

This article originally appeared in the 27 July edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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