Redundancy: How to restore balance
The darkest hour, says Adrian Rose, is 3am. “Having eventually got myself to sleep, I’d wake up again after an hour and just lie there from 3am to 6am. They were what I call my ‘dark times’ because you can’t do anything or talk to anyone.”
The month after losing his job, and his business as a shoe retailer in Edgware, Middlesex, Rose describes as the worst time of his life. “It was four weeks of horror, panic and daily feelings of failure and inadequacy.”
The CBI may have this week predicted an end to the recession by Christmas, but the number of people kept awake at 3am by job worries is unlikely to diminish anytime soon. Last week, experts predicted a “job-lite recovery” in which unemployment continues to rise even as the economy begins to grow again.
Yes, losing a job may be an increasingly common career “event”, something most of us will experience at some stage. But that familiarity doesn’t lessen the psychological pain that often accompanies redundancy. Finding a job in a recession is tough enough. But wrestling with the self-critical voices, doubts and fears in your head can be an even tougher fight. The sudden loss of routine, contact with professional peers, and simply not having a workplace to go to can leave people feeling isolated, depressed and lost.
“I kept waking up thinking, ‘What if I don’t get another job, what if I have to give up the lifestyle I enjoy, what if I become a nobody’,” recalls Janis Knight, who lost her job as an HR manager last month. “Work is a huge part of life and suddenly it’s gone. And not through choice – it’s been taken away.”
Redundancy can feel like a form of identity theft. We might dislike the notion, but in many cases, we are what we do. It’s hardly a modern phenomenon: many of our most common surnames – Baker, Smith, Cooper, Clark, Taylor – we’ve inherited from the occupations of our forefathers.
So while well-meaning friends (we may even have said it ourselves) might advise not getting too upset about it, we shouldn’t be surprised by the growing body of academic research suggesting unemployment should be treated as a full-on psychological crisis.
Richard Lucas, a psychologist at Michigan State University, believes not all of life’s slings and arrows are created equal. When Lucas and colleagues analysed findings from two large studies – one in Britain, the other in Germany – they concluded that, on average, most people adapt quickly to marriage. In other words, within just a couple of years, the peak in the “wellbeing” they experienced around the time of getting married returns to previous levels. People mostly adapt to the sorrows of losing a partner too, though this takes longer – about seven years. However, his study also moved Lucas to speculate that people who get orced, suffer major injury or illness or become unemployed do not, on average, return to the same level of happiness they enjoyed previously.
Six months ago the government announced an initiative where people made redundant can be referred to therapists through a network linking Jobcentres, GP surgeries and NHS Direct.
Much of the therapy on offer is based on what’s called the Kübler-Ross model. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss doctor, published a book in 1969, On Death and Dying, based around her study of more than 20,000 people who had near-death experiences. Her five stages of emotional and psychological response to tragedy and catastrophic loss – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – are still commonly used to help people cope with redundancy.
But Dr Brendan Burchell, a lecturer in the department of sociology at the University of Cambridge who has studied data from 300 employees over the last two recessions, thinks the five-stages approach is too catch-all to be of much value in this latest downturn.
“If you look back even to the inter-war depression, there are not dissimilar findings on what happens to people when they lose their jobs. But the reasons for their depression, anxiety and insomnia have changed,” he says. “It used to be that losing a job meant absolute poverty and soup kitchens but now there is a lot of controversy over what is the primary cause of these psychological effects.”
While one school of thought claims financial pressures remain the trigger – so money and what it buys us is the principal reason we work – another body of opinion argues the so-called “latent” benefits of employment are more important: losing the sense of identity, structure, and social contact that come with having a job are more to blame.
“Actually, I think the evidence suggests both are true,” says Burchell. “When someone tells you that ‘It’s important that I provide for my family’, what they’re really saying is ‘Yes, I’ve got to find a job to keep the wolf from the door, but also restore my self-esteem that I am the breadwinner’.”
The scale and depth of this recession, Burchell believes, means that there is less anger among those being made redundant. “There is a strong sense that employers have no choice, so there is less anger directed at employers. And in marked contrast to the recession of the early 1980s, when unemployed workers in many regions, particularly in the northern industrial heartlands, knew that realistically they would never have a good job again, now there is a widely shared belief there will be a recovery – though it might be a year or two before it really …