Understanding the psychological toll of job loss during COVID-19

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on employment in Canada and abroad. To date, nearly six million people in this country have applied for government emergency benefits to offset their financial burden. That’s almost equivalent to the entire population in the Greater Toronto Area.

But financial support isn’t enough to fill the void left by unemployment.

Just ask Elizabeth Fulton, a professional photographer who built a thriving business single-handedly over the last decade. “I chose this profession partly because it allowed me to better balance caring for my kids and pursuing a career. But I stuck with it because of the relationships I built with my clients. They have become, in many ways, like my extended family,” she said.

“I meet their babies at just a few days old; I watch them grow up. So when my business came to a halt, virtually overnight, I didn’t just lose my income. I lost the shape to my day, and I lost the constant contact and feedback from clients. In a way, I suppose it feels a bit like I’ve misplaced my identity,” she explained. “I wouldn’t say it’s lost. It just feels out of reach right now.”

It’s no surprise then, that job loss has been linked to depression, anxiety, and even thoughts of suicide. But by addressing the psychological effects of unemployment, we can help mitigate the mental health consequences and turn hardship into resiliency.

Bill Howatt, the chief of research for workforce productivity at the Conference Board of Canada, says that COVID-19 has added layers of complication to a job loss. “For those who’ve lost their job in the hospitality sector, the formula for finding a new job has changed. They can’t dust off their resume and walk down the street to the nearest restaurant and ply their trade again. As for professionals like dentists and chiropractors, they have the compounded stress of overhead, like rent and employee salaries, when no revenue is coming in. It can all feel very hopeless.”

Following any major loss, it’s natural to experience grief. Losing a job is no different. Many people derive their sense of purpose from their work, and to lose that can have a profound impact on mental well-being.

In addition to providing a raison d’être, a person’s job is often deeply intertwined with their identity. One of the first questions we ask when getting to know someone is, “What do you do?” When the answer to that question disappears overnight, feelings of aimlessness can quickly set in.

“I tell people the most important thing to do, right off the bat in this situation, is to plan out your day as best you can. Get up, get dressed, get a routine going and try to follow it daily,” said Howatt, who notes that owning the things you can control is a good way to feel more empowered.

Fulton agrees with that idea. “Routine is huge for me. I’m eating healthy foods, I’m exercising daily, and I’m trying to come up with creative ways to engage with my clients.”

For Howatt, what Fulton is subconsciously doing is something he offers formal training in: mental fitness. “Not only is taking care of your physical health important, but planning for post-COVID is key. If people can look at this situation and say, ‘How can I emerge stronger, more prepared to work, with better relationships?,’ it gives a sense of hope and a sense of purpose.” click to tweet

He also advises that people practise something called cognitive reframing. “Ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst-case scenario?’ Play that out. Let yourself really walk that path. Then ask yourself what the best-case scenario is. Sometimes our brain gets stuck on a wave of negative thinking, and we’ve got to play a little trick on it so we can get out from under the deluge.”

If you want to support someone who’s recently lost their job but aren’t sure how, the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC’s) Active Listening Guide can help you engage with more confidence. Sometimes, the fear of saying the wrong thing keeps us from saying anything at all. But it’s important to remember that the person who’s just lost their job may feel uncomfortable or unsure about how to ask for support. Reach out and tell them you’re available to listen, and remind them that their value isn’t determined by their employment status.

If you have recently lost your job, the MHCC has tools that can help you assess your mental health and begin charting a course to improve it. The Working Mind program has created a COVID-19 Self-Care and Resilience Guide. You can use the guide to gauge where you fall on the mental health continuum and incorporate self-care into your coping strategies.

For additional resources, the federal government has launched Wellness Together Canada, a portal designed to connect people in Canada with the mental health and substance use support they need.

It’s also important to remember that, while losing a job can be an isolating experience, you aren’t alone. Reach out to people around you, whether it’s former co-workers grappling with the same loss or trusted friends and family you can count on for support. Verbalizing your thoughts and feelings can also help you process them and feel more in control of the situation.

“I’m trying to be kind to myself right now,” said Fulton. “But I do try to think of one thing to do, every day, that’s related to my work. Whether that’s reaching out to a client to say hello or making a post on social media offering free advice on how to take better pictures at home, I’ve got to find ways to stay connected and feel useful.”

Howatt said she’s on the right track. “This is going to be a mental marathon, but taking smalls steps every day can add up to big rewards when we emerge from this. And make no mistake, we will.”