In recent years a growing number of Americans have experienced job loss due to recessions, downsizing, and business restructuring bent on financial survival. Job loss and financial hardship rank among the more severe stressors that people encounter.
Research since the 1930s reveals that unemployment has major effects on individuals' and families' emotional and physical health. Researchers have found strong relationships between unemployment rates and increased mental hospital admissions, suicide, homicide, total mortality, and cardiovascular-renal disease mortality (Brenner, 1973, 1976, 1977). Unemployment also contributes to greater depression and lower self-esteem (Waters & Moore, 2001) and to family instability, decreased family relations, and family violence (Furstenberg, 1974; Hanisch, 1999; Voydanoff, 1978).
Who copes well with unemployment? From a mental health and well-being viewpoint, unemployment is similar to other transitions that people experience, like divorce, death of a child, loss of the family farm, or acquiring a disability. All of these transitions often lead to high levels of stress both for the individuals involved and for their families and communities.
Lessons emerge from those who cope well with unemployment. Researchers have found that most adults at first experience high levels of stress or depression. Those who create calming spaces in their lives to problem solve cope well. They ask themselves: "When I was in a similar tough transition before, what did I do well?" I looked in the paper for jobs that might match my talents, skills, and experience. I thought about new directions I might explore. I drew upon our savings and purchased only what was most important. I explained to our children: "We're a strong family. We're in a tough spot for a while, but together we'll make it through this too." We held a family meeting. We brainstormed ways all of us could save money. We paid the most important bills. We asked others for more time to pay. We made lists of things we could do without to help our family get by on less. I updated my resume. As a couple we communicated openly and pulled together as a team to keep up my confidence, especially when I started to feel depressed. Every day I spent at least two hours actively pursuing new jobs. Recalling a successful transition from one's past often gives hope and often provides ideas how to cope with the current crisis.
One of the most important characteristics of resilient families who cope well with unemployment is the meaning they attach to the unemployment. When individuals and families see unemployment as manageable, it is less stressful for them (Angell, 1936; Cavan, 1959; Leana, Feldman, & Tan, 1998; Powell & Driscoll, 1973). The more positive the meaning, the better people adapt to the change.
One woman who was laid off after 20 years of working for a company said: "At first I was mad and sad and scared. But after awhile I realized that the day I got laid off was the best day of my life! Why? Because now I was free to do what I always wanted to do--start a craft store. For three years now I've been having so much more fun than I had in my old job. I needed the push of a layoff to get started."
Her positive attitude and her new ideas led to a successful job transition. Additional suggestions for maintaining mental health during unemployment are listed below.
Suggestions for Maintaining Mental Health During Employment Transitions
By Robert J. Fetsch,
Human Development & Family Studies
Colorado State University
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