Losing a job or having a position end because of budget cuts or for other reasons is particularly common in humanitarian relief and development work. Uncertain and unstable donor priorities and funding mechanisms lead agencies to offer short-term employment contracts. This means that few employees have any long-term employment stability. However, even if you know, logically, that this entire industry is prone to cyclical unemployment, losing your job or having a contract end is still a stressful experience, particularly when you don’t know what comes next.
It can be easier to cope with a stressful experience like this if you know what feelings you may experience, and you have a plan and some strategies for coping. This tips sheet speaks to both of these things.
Losing a job—especially if it happens suddenly and it’s not something you expect or want—is a significant loss and a major change. Common and normal feelings are often similar to those experienced by people who are grieving, and include:
- Shock and/or denial: You can feel a sense of disbelief that this is actually happening. It can take time to absorb the reality of the situation.
- Anger: You can blame those you think are responsible (including yourself) and feel resentful towards the organization.
- Sadness: When you lose a job you often lose a number of interconnected and important things, including: your daily work; your work community; your daily and weekly routines; financial security; and an important part of your identity.
- Fear: You may feel anxious, unsettled, and worried about the implications of uncertain finances, change, and your prospects of getting another job.
- Acceptance, relief, and/or excitement: You may also feel that a burden has lifted and excited at the thought that new opportunities await, even if you don’t know what those will be yet.
It’s also quite normal to feel a mixture of all of these feelings. For example, to feel sadness, anger, and some relief.
Things that can help
There are loss of things you can do to help yourself cope during this time of uncertainty and transition. Here are some things to try:
Accept your feelings
It is normal to feel a wide range of strong emotions during this season. Accept those feelings as they come instead of trying to push them away, and remember that these feelings willalso go away again, in time.
Accepting and acknowledging your feelings, however, is not the same thing as welcoming them warmly and inviting them to settle in and stay for an extended period. It is normal to feel some anger if you lose your job or if a program is eliminated because of funding challenges. However, it will not help you to spend a lot of time thinking about how the organization has messed up or failed you, fantasize about getting revenge, or focus on feeling sorry for yourself for weeks.
Don’t discount your negative feelings of sadness, anger, and fear, or judge yourself for feeling bad. It is possible to acknowledge and create space for these feelings and, at the same time, remind yourself of helpful truths such as:
- This is a temporary setback or challenge; it is not the end of the world.
- This too shall pass and things will get better.
- I’ve faced challenges before and gotten through those tough times. Remind yourself of past successes and other times setbacks and unwanted changes have resulted in new and valuable opportunities.
- I have options and resources. Review your strengths and everything you have to be grateful for—savings, friends and family, professional connections, valuable experience, education, language skills etc.
- I have people in my life who care about me.
- I have so much to be grateful for. Look at everything that is good in your life and find things to be grateful for.
Share with family members
If you are part of a family—and especially if your family depends primarily on your income—your unemployment will be stressful for them, too. Try to be open with them rather than dealing with it all alone. Discuss how you’re feeling, and what you’re doing and thinking about for next steps.
This approach is also good to take with children. Children tend to imagine the worst when things feel uncertain and scary, so being open with them about what is happening and reassuring them that you will all get through it together will help them. Listen to how your family members are feeling, and discuss ways you can support one another.
Spend time with friends and family who are positive
Spending time with people who are positive and encouraging can help you gain and maintain a sense of perspective and optimism. Seek out people who can help you identify good strategies, who encourage you, and who remind you that this is a temporary setback. Don’t spend a lot of time right now with people who drain you or drag you down, who are constantly negative, or who make you feel worse.
Within the first three months after your job ends, you can also still access the no-cost counseling benefits provided by the IRC EARP. It may help you to reach out to a counselor during this period to discuss coping strategies and seek other input and advice.
Be proactive about financial planning
Financial strain associated with job loss can be a source of additional pressure and cause significant problems, so be proactive about tackling this challenge. Don’t ignore this issue or pretend it will magically sort itself out. This is something that’s important to address directly, right away. Do things such as:
- Apply for unemployment benefits if they exist and you are eligible.
- Take stock of the money you have saved and your monthly expenses, so you know how long it will be before you feel significant financial strain.
- Adjust your budget straight away. Find ways to (at least temporarily) reduce expenses by cutting out unnecessary items.
- Reach out to your network and let them know you’re interested in taking on contract work.
On a related note, if you’re living abroad and losing your job will impact your right to work or stay in the country, this is another issue that requires immediate attention. Act straight away to find out the implications for your visa status.
Be proactive about finding your next job
Give yourself at least a couple of days to come to terms with the situation (longer if possible). However, once you are ready to focus on finding a new job, dedicate significant time, effort, and energy to your job search. Make this a real priority, and dedicate time to it every weekday. Set a regular schedule for these efforts, if possible. This will all help you feel more grounded in routine, in control, and as if you are accomplishing things.
- Update your resume: Include identifying and making a list of things you’re really good at (your core strengths and skills). Update this list of core strengths and skills as more ideas come to you over time.
- Make a to-do list every day: On this list, include some job searching tasks as well as some other activities you intend to do.
- Reach out to your network of contacts: Find ways to spend time with friends and acquaintances in your line of work. Many new opportunities open up through existing relationships, so invest in those existing relationships and look for ways to connect with others who are already working in your area of interest.
- Go to every interview possible: Even if you’re not sure you want the job, the more you interview the better you will be at it. You also never know what opportunities may arise as a result.
- Consider volunteering: If you are able, volunteering is one way to help others that is also research-proven to help you by boosting your mood and giving you a sense of purpose. It can also help you develop new skills and lead to other opportunities over time.
Use your extra time wisely
It may not feel like it, but the extra time you have in your schedule right now can actually be a gift—an opportunity for you to take care of yourself and accomplish other “life administration” tasks in ways that is often difficult to do when you’re working full time. Doing these things intentionally will also help you emotionally. Here are four ways you can put some of your extra time to very good use.
- Take care of your health: In times of increased stress, we are particularly vulnerable to getting sick, injuring ourselves, and developing harmful habits (such as drinking too much alcohol). It’s particularly important to take care of your health during this period of stress and uncertainty. Continue or start doing that regular exercise you found difficult to fit into your schedule when you were working. Eat healthy food. Get enough sleep.
- Do something you enjoy every day: Even if it’s only for 20 minutes, do something you enjoy every day. This might be a hobby like gardening, cooking, sports, art, or writing. It might be listening to music, reading, or watching a favorite TV program. Taking some time for enjoyment will help keep your spirits up and remind you that there are good things happening in your life.
- Help someone else: Do something to help others with your extra time and energy. This will also help you by boosting your mood and giving you a sense of purpose.
- Accomplish “life admin” tasks you often don’t get to while you’re working: What jobs have you been meaning to “get to”? What needs repairing or organizing around the house? Who have you been meaning to contact? Making a list of these projects and working steadily to get them done can help boost your sense of purpose and accomplishment.
On really bad days
When you’re unemployed, some days are much harder than others, and the hard days can come out of nowhere. You can be doing pretty well at making progress on your job search and ticking things off your to-do list, then BAM. You wake up feeling like you just don’t want to get out of bed. Ever.
When these days happen, try to take the pressure off. This too shall pass. You will not feel this bad forever. And instead of tackling a huge to-do list that day, keep it simple. Aim to do three things only:
- Something useful (such as help a friend with something small)
- Something kind (for someone else, or for yourself)
- Something you’ve been putting off
Keep these three things small and achievable. This is not the day to try to paint the whole house because it’s something you’ve been putting off, but it might be the day to organize a cupboard in the kitchen. Make sure you pick something you can achieve in less than half a day.
These small achievements may not banish the heavy feelings, but they can stop you from feeling bad about feeling bad. They can gently challenge the voices in your head telling you that you’re useless and wasting your time. They can help give you a small, solid, sense of accomplishment even in the midst of feeling awful. And this feeling can help you hang in there until things feel lighter and you can re-engage with your job search again.