Emotional Impact of a Sudden Job Loss – Part 2

In part 1 of this article, we explored the unique needs of suddenly unemployed individuals and the first three stages of the emotional wave (e-wave) associated with a sudden job loss: shock and denial; fear and panic; and anger.

We also explored counselling techniques that can be used to assist clients deal with each of the stages cited above. In Part 2, we explain the other four stages of the e-wave and explore additional counselling techniques.

Stage 4: Bargaining

“You promise yourself that if the boss rehires you or you got another job…you’ll never take a pay check for granted again. Once the money starts coming in, you’ll start a savings account, a retirement plan, and a college fund for your kids. You’ll learn from your past mistakes. You’ll become the worthiest employee, family member, and world citizen who ever was.” (Birkel & Miller, 1998, p.43)

This quote light-heartedly illustrates the thought processes that characterise the bargaining stage.  Bargaining can be an effort to exercise control over a situation in which the individual feels powerless or out of control. Offers to change in attitude or behaviour if only granted their job back are common for individuals experiencing this stage of the e-wave.

Offering false hope during this stage may simply prolong the shift into depression and acceptance. Clients in the stage may benefit from a discussion about what they, personally, can do to make a difference – whether it is seeking out training opportunities or searching for relevant job vacancies.

By affording control to clients in this stage, their sense of responsibility can be increased and decisions about their future can slowly begin to progress.

Stage 5: Depression

If depression arises in the suddenly unemployed client, it is likely to be characterised by feelings of worthlessness, guilt and lethargy (Birkel & Miller, 1998). Such feelings make it particularly challenging for the individual to begin job searching or networking.

On a practical level, clients experiencing this stage may benefit from engaging in some form of physical exercise and maintaining a semblance of routine.

Physical Exercise – Research has consistently reported the association between physical exercise and elevated mood (e.g. Segall, 2001; Raymond, 1999).  LeTourneau (2001) comments that when aerobic exercise is coupled with strength training the benefits can be even more marked.

Of course, for a client experiencing depression, finding the drive to participate in exercise can be extraordinarily difficult. Raymond (1999) emphasises however that substantial mood gains can be made with as little as 20 minutes of exercise, three times per week.

Encouraging clients to increase their physical fitness not only provides mood-boosting benefits but may also foster a sense of achievement and accomplishment (possibly lacking from their current day-to-day experience). Additionally, regular exercise is congruent with general health principles, promoting energy and vitality.

Maintaining a routine – Unemployment produces significant changes in one’s daily circumstances. A lack of routine due to a free schedule is often one of the more apparent changes. Maintenance of a routine encourages a purposeful approach to the day and promotes action.

If appropriate, clients may benefit from approaching their free time as a job – that job being to search for reemployment.

Expressive writing – In addition to the practical strategies of regular exercise and maintenance of routine, clients experiencing this stage of the e-wave may also find benefit in emotional expression.

Soper & Von Bergen (2001) found that writing about the experience of job loss assists clients in expressing and integrating their feelings, leading to long-term improvements in their mental and physical health.

Expressive writing transforms thought and feeling into a linguistic expression. This encourages assimilation and understanding of the event and can assist in reducing the negative feelings associated with the experience.

Soper & Von Bergen (2001) caution, however, that the counsellor must be prepared for initial short-term increases in anxiety from clients as they recall the event. Nonetheless, this temporary escalation in anxiety is later replaced with increased understanding and reduced negative affects.

It is vital to note, however, that expressive writing is not an appropriate form of intervention for all unemployed clients. Clients with severe depression, PTSD or who are at-risk of experiencing acute reactions to trauma are not likely to benefit from direct expression and recall of their traumatic experience.

Counsellors must take professional precautions when implementing expressive writing as a strategy for clients who have experienced a traumatic event. Careful selection and monitoring of all clients utilising this technique is essential.

Implementing expressive writing

“…the following is a possible prototypical expressive writing methodology, one geared to the homework setting, but quite adaptable to the counselling office. Clients would be asked to write for 15 to 20 minutes once or twice a week, ideally for a minimum of 3 or 4 weeks. This schedule is flexible enough to allow the work to be tailored to clients’ resources and situations while meeting the criteria of efficacy established by the research.

Clients would be best served if asked to write about their most intense thoughts and feelings related to the current unemployment experience. Possible instructions might be as follows: Twice a week, for the next 3 weeks, I would like you to write your very deepest thoughts and feelings about your current unemployment. Try to allow 2 or 3 days between each writing exercise. Consider a set place you can use each time you write. Also, a consistent schedule for writing is helpful, such as Monday and Friday, or Wednesday and Sunday.

In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and ideas. Also, as you write, consider how your current situation affects your daily life. You may write about the same issues or aspects of your situation at each sitting or on different ones.

Don’t be concerned about your spelling, grammar, sentence structure or handwriting, if you write by hand. Once you start writing don’t stop until the time is up. It is okay if you run a little long or short. It is common to find that it gets easier to write as you do it.

Any of your writing that you wish to share with me will be considered confidential within the limitation already discussed when we started our relationship. It is usual practice to have clients bring in their written homework and discuss or process it with the counsellor, but this is not a rigid requirement.

Some adequately benefit from merely writing their thoughts and feelings, whereas others will want to expand upon what they have produced and receive relevant feedback (Soper & Von Bergen, 2001, p.157).”

Stage 6: Temporary Acceptance

Feelings of sadness are frequently followed by a temporary acceptance of job loss. At this stage, more than any other stage, client functioning is at its highest. Clients experiencing temporary acceptance are more able to plan and act in a manner congruent with seeking reemployment.

This stage is described as ‘temporary’ because it is likely clients will continue to feel pangs of sadness, anger, disbelief and/or fear throughout the duration of their unemployment.

Temporary acceptance represents a time when a client can put an element of emotional distance between themselves and the experience of job loss. They may begin to reflect on where they have been and where they hope to go. During this stage, clients may benefit from systematic planning and the development of specific action steps.

Clients may also benefit, at this stage, from counselling that focuses on clarifying work-related strengths, attributes and abilities. Clients are likely to be well attuned to any setbacks or negative responses received from potential employers or others involved in the job prospecting process.

Counselling focused on client strengths and resources not only enables a conversational shift from client deficits to client competencies but also acts as a mechanism for refuting exaggerated self-condemnation.


  • Birkel, J. D & Miller, S. J. (1998). Career bounce-back: The professionals in transition guide to recovery and reemployment. New York: Amacom.
  • LeTourneau, M. (2001). Pump up to cheer up. Psychology Today, 34 (3): 27-28.
  • Raymond, N. (1999). Walk away from depression. Psychology Today, 32 (6): 24- 25.
    Segall, R. (2001). Work it out. Psychology Today, 34 (1): 26-27.