Emotional Impact of a Sudden Job Loss – Part 1

Unfortunately, ‘organisational restructuring’ and ‘downsizing’ are common events in today’s workplace. For those individuals who suddenly lose their job, financial pressures can be overwhelming. Most support individuals receive focuses on helping them to plan financially. However even under the best conditions where someone has ample savings and decent job prospects, suddenly losing a job is an emotional ride.

The emotional stress that individuals and their families experience is the least discussed effect of unemployment. For many people work is a central component to their identity. When their employment status changes, so too can their self-concept or sense of identity. This, together with financial strain, can mark a very stressful and negative time.

The experience of sudden unemployment can propel an individual through the troughs of despair to the peaks of hopefulness and back again. The role of a counsellor, during this journey, is to recognise and effectively respond to the client’s ever-shifting emotional undercurrent.

Unique Needs of the Suddenly Unemployed

Reactions to the news of sudden unemployment, whether through redundancy or dismissal, are as varied as the individuals affected. Emotional reactions can range from shock and disbelief to anger and resentment.

Of course, there is no set template for how an individual will react to news of their job loss. Reactions are dependant on an array of variables including, age, length of service, employment prospects, financial security, presence of dependants, personality and coping skills.

In order to work effectively with someone coping with unemployment, counsellors needs to be clear about the unique impact the loss has had and is continuing to have on the individual. Nonetheless, theoretical models, outlining the stages of loss can provide a helpful framework from which more individualised approach can evolve.

Birkel & Miller (1998) suggests that the emotional manifestations of job loss follow a similar pattern to the stages Kubler-Ross identified as typical of a grief response to death and dying.

Birkel & Miller (1998) describe the emotional wave (or e-wave) of unemployment to illustrate the process. The e-wave exemplifies the typical emotional cycle of someone experiencing unemployment. It is important to note, however, that individuals may not necessarily follow this pattern exactly.

Stage 1: Shock and denial

In the initial stages after job loss, individuals often respond with disbelief, shock or denial. Thoughts such as, “How can this be happening? “, “It must be a mistake”, and “No, it can’t be. This isn’t right”, are common during this time.

Counselling during this stage should allow the individual time to come to terms with the shock of unemployment. Counsellors should utilise their core skills of active and reflective listening to allow the individual to consider and discuss their experience. Clients should only be encouraged to share the news of their unemployment with others once they have been able to recognise and, in part, accept the reality of their circumstance.

Stage 2: Fear and panic

The dissipation of shock and denial is often replaced with feelings of fear or panic. Thoughts such as, “I’ll lose everything”, “My career is over” or “What if I never work again?” are common at this stage.

Individuals experiencing fear and panic as a result of sudden unemployment may find everyday choices challenging. With hesitancy and uncertainty leading to indecision, individuals may experience intense apprehension as they ponder about a financially uncertain and unknown future.

To assist clients experiencing these anxieties, counsellors may employ cognitive strategies designed to minimise fear and panic. Such strategies include:

  1. Thought stopping
  2. Establishing a pre-determined time to think about concerns
  3. Writing down fears and questioning their validity

Thought stopping – Thought stopping is a stress reduction technique that’s designed to lessen the impact of negative, obsessive thoughts and/or imagery. The technique is relatively simple to explain, but can be challenging for clients to implement.

There are a variety of thought stopping strategies that can be taught to clients who are experiencing intrusive thoughts as a result of sudden job loss. These include:

  • Replacing one thought with another (eg. the thought of bankruptcy is replaced with thoughts of skill development).
  • Hearing words such as “stop”, “relax”, “I’m okay”, or seeing the image of a stop sign or red light whenever destructive, unwanted thoughts arise.
  • Using positive imagery to divert a particular line of thinking (e.g. seeing yourself being successful in a job interview).

Initial thought-stopping training:

  1. Use gentle relaxation strategies to assist your client to relax. Try controlled breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
  2. Allow your client to begin thinking about their unemployment or results of their unemployment.
  3. Once a thought pattern has been established, clap or say “stop”, loudly enough to distract your client from their train of thought.
  4. Invite your client to reflect on what happened to their thoughts.
  5. Assuming the negative or obsessive thoughts disappeared; repeat the process, gradually decreasing the intensity of the distraction.
  6. Encourage the client to create their own, mental distraction (image, sound or both) that they may implement as a way of stopping the stream of unwanted thoughts.
  7. Practise this technique over the next three counselling session and encourage your client to practise in their own time also.

(Technique adapted from – Palmer, S. & Dryden, W. (1995). Counselling for stress problems. London: Sage)

Establishing a pre-determined time to think about concerns (a worry-appointment) – When excessive worry or fear interferes with a client’s day-to-day experience, counsellors may introduce the technique of a “worry-appointment”.

As the name suggests, a worry-appointment is a specific time set aside for worry each day. It might be 15 minutes at the end of the day or 10 minutes at lunchtime. At other times during the day when worry strikes, clients are encouraged to delay the worry until the scheduled time.

Establishing a worry-appointment, in this way, offers clients a strategy for postponing worry and controlling the intrusion of thoughts. By providing permission for “worry” at a scheduled time, this technique can minimise the impact of intrusive thoughts on the client and provide a mechanism for practising thought management.

Writing down fears and questioning their validity – Encouraging clients to write down their fears about unemployment can foster a new perspective. Fears are often generated through a “What if…” mindset.

When clients are invited to write down their negative mental scenarios about unemployment (such as bankruptcy, divorce, or the ending of one’s career), the reality of their fears may shift into a new frame. When discussed openly with a counsellor or simply observed on paper, previously worrying fears may be recognised as lacking any basis in reality.

Stage 3: Anger

Typically, anger management techniques focus on identifying personal triggers and strategies for managing one’s response to these triggers. In the event of sudden unemployment, the anger response is generally a natural reaction to a disempowering experience. Rather than responding in aggression or anger toward an ex-boss, a client is encouraged to experience the healthy expression of their anger.

If a client is experiencing anger as a result of sudden unemployment, it may be significantly beneficial for them to have that anger normalised. Normalising offers the client permission to feel angry and provides a platform for deeper levels of discussion.

In addition, encouraging clients to express their anger in a healthy way minimises the likelihood of denying or internalising the anger, which may potentially lead to feelings of disempowerment and despondency.

The expression of anger may occur through a variety of outlets – whether through physical outlets, such as running, punching a punching bag or working in the yard; or through creative outlets, such as expressive writing or art therapy.

In part 2 we will discuss stages 4-7.


  • Birkel, J. D & Miller, S. J. (1998). Career bounce-back: The professionals in transition guide to recovery and reemployment. New York: Amacom.