As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I am all too familiar with how on-the-job stress can affect your mental health, and vice versa. What I didn’t realize, however, was how much worse not having a job would be for my mental health—until I had to live through several months of being unemployed myself.
With unemployment, of course there’s the obvious stressor: loss of income and financial stability.
I immediately regretted not putting more into savings while I had the chance. I worried about how many months’ worth of money I had saved up, whether I’d be able to finish off my lease, and how long the gap would be between my last paycheck and the moment I finally land a new job.
With that said, I was in a relatively privileged position when I became unemployed. I had family who were willing and able to support me financially, and I didn’t have the responsibility of providing for anyone else other than myself. For those who don’t have the same safety net, the financial consequences—and the stress that comes with them—of losing employment can be much worse.
Still, there is so much more beyond the money. When you lose your job, you lose a key structure in your life. Without that structure, it can be hard to find your footing again.
There was a time when I thought maybe I wasn’t meant for the nine-to-five lifestyle. I thought there would be a silver lining in not having work for a while, that it would give me more freedom to pursue my creative interests and really think about what direction I want to take professionally. While it’s technically true that I do have more time to branch out, I didn’t consider the possibility that this newfound freedom would turn into a burden.
Soon enough, I realized how much structure it gave my life and how dependent I became on it. Once that structure was lost, it became so easy for me to spiral and lose sight of my direction in life, which made me even more stressed. I felt the obligation to apply to as many jobs as possible, to pitch to as many magazines as possible, to write as much as possible, and to do as much as possible with all the time I had. When I didn’t live up to that expectation, I felt even more pressure on myself, plus a sense of failure—that here I was with all this free time in my day, and I wasn’t turning it into anything of use.
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What I later realized is how difficult it can be to separate work and down time when you’re out of a job. With no real schedule, I spent my days on the couch writing cover letters and blog posts with the TV on. I combined work and play, and when I didn’t get as much done as I’d planned, I would keep working throughout the evening. I felt like I was constantly “on the clock” even though I didn’t have to be, so even when I was “relaxing,” I didn’t feel truly relaxed.
After months go by and you still can’t find work, it’s hard not to feel down, discouraged, insecure, and all the negative emotions that come with losing confidence in yourself and your abilities.
Being out of work was not good for my self-esteem. The more I applied to jobs and the more I didn’t hear back from them, the more I started to second guess my qualifications and. The more cover letters I wrote, the more started to doubt whether my resume was worth anything at all. Sometimes the feeling of discouragement was so strong that I would go through chunks of time where I didn’t apply to any jobs at all—reinforcing the cycle all over again.
Without work as your anchor, you may also find yourself feeling confused about your goals, your purpose, and your identity.
I didn’t realize how much my sense of self was wrapped up in my work and my career until I lost my job. That was when I found myself perplexed at how I would introduce myself to new people, what my answer would be to the “What do you do?” question, and even what I would write in my Twitter bio. Somehow, work—and the idea that I had a career and a direction in life—made me feel like I was somebody, and without it, I felt like a nobody.
Even worse, there’s the pressure our culture places on productivity. How long have you been out of work? What have you done in this time that is of value—value being defined in a very limited way?
I felt the need to take online classes, learn a new language, or pick up a new hobby—anything to prove that despite being out of work, I could still be useful. Looking back, a lot of what I did during this time hasn’t been for my own enrichment or my own wellbeing but rather to satisfy the arbitrary pressure our culture places on people to constantly be busy and productive. I felt the need to justify how I was spending my time to others because I didn’t want anyone to think I was “doing nothing.” What I didn’t realize was that “doing nothing” simply meant giving myself a break from the capitalistic expectation of productivity.
You may find that these negative thoughts about your unemployment begin to affect your relationships with the people in your life. I know it did for me.
Months and months of unemployment can be tough on your personal relationships. It seems like everyone else is doing something with their lives and accomplishing their dreams while you’re at a standstill. It feels like everyone else has moved on lightyears ahead while you’ve remained in the same place. I couldn’t stop comparing myself to others, fixating on all the ways I didn’t measure up. That feeling—that mental distance—made it difficult for me to keep in touch with the people I care about.
I didn’t know how to talk about my day or my life. I was always self-conscious of sounding like I wasn’t doing enough, or that I was putting a damper on other people’s happiness by talking about my own difficulties in finding work. I felt the embarrassment and shame that came with not being able to find a job but at the same time didn’t want to admit those feelings. I thought if I vocalized my self-image issues, others would begin to see me that way, too. Not knowing how to keep in touch with people was probably the hardest—and most unexpected—thing about unemployment.
Finally, to top off all these mental and emotional hurdles, it’s also less likely that you’ll be able to afford mental health care to help you process your feelings.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a job that provides you with health insurance, losing said job also means you will lose your health coverage along with it. Although my job provided me with health insurance that covered mental health care, I didn’t feel the urgent need to take advantage of that benefit until after it was gone. I didn’t foresee how much unemployment would affect my mental health and sense of self, and I especially didn’t predict that it would cause me to become more distant from the people close to me. I found it ironic that it’s usually during times of hardship like this that a person would find themselves with the least means to take care of themselves.
Self-esteem, stress, anxiety, and depression are all difficult enough to manage by themselves. When you throw unemployment into the mix, especially in a culture that places so much value on work and productivity, all those issues become even worse. For anyone who’s going through this rough patch themselves right now, be gentle with yourself. And for anyone who loves someone who’s going through this, be understanding.
[Feature Image: A person with shoulder length hair sits outdoors in the grass while the city landscape is in view across the water. Pexels.com]