Climbing steps from darkness to light

3 Positive Steps to Take for Furloughed Workers

Rachel Stewart Johnson

Psychologist | Driven by communications about human behavior in Work

Experiencing job loss, even if temporary, can serve as a major life stressor. Weekly unemployment figures in the US have remained well above the previous historic highs since March. Those contending with the reality of a lost position are vast in number. That suggests millions of Americans are faced with uncertain income, loss of daily routines, economic vulnerability, and plenty of stress.

In early May, The Washington Post reported that of the 33 million Americans who had filed an unemployment claim by that point, 77% expected to get their job back. However, the months of June and July saw rises in positive COVID-19 test results. That rise -- and in some regions, pauses or rollbacks of business reopenings -- has coincided with renewed rises in unemployment figures. Furloughs, at employers across industries from Disneyland to General Electric to Nordstrom, have turned into layoffs. More recent data shows that displaced workers are sensing their shifting fates. Now 47% of respondents who experienced a pandemic-era job loss say their job is “definitely” or “probably” not coming back.

Having a belief that one’s job loss is temporary is protective against symptoms of depression often associated with unemployment. But what happens when a period of unemployment stretches on longer than hoped? How can we respond amid an extended span of uncertainty as employers juggle numerous unknowns? That’s where drawing upon coping strategies can help weather this period.

Here are three to keep in mind, whether you’re experiencing joblessness yourself or you’re an employer looking to boost the morale of your furloughed workforce.

 

Be a zebra.

ZebraThe waiting game is hard. There’s been plenty of waiting in recent months, from waiting to “see what happens with the virus” to waiting for economic indicators and decisions from policymakers. While that represents a lot of factors outside of one’s control, dwelling on those factors can easily lead to chronic anxiety. Consider the analogy first offered up several years ago by behavioral biologist Robert Sapolsky, in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

A zebra lives out its days with apparent awareness of the present, including its immediate needs. The animal exists in a state of relative calm. When a threat arrives -- a predator is lurking -- the zebra assumes a heightened arousal response, with raised heart rate and respiration, and an instinctive flight from the danger. When the danger has passed, the zebra resumes its baseline state of being, no longer in that “flight or fight” mode. The idea is that zebras do not experience states of prolonged stress -- hence, no ulcers and other stress-associated outcomes.

Humans, however, are a different story. Instead of “letting it go,” we can exist in states of chronic arousal, stress, and fear. There’s an associated impact on physical health, with weeks on end of elevated heart rates, increases in the stress hormone cortisol, and other markers. Combine fears of one’s vulnerability to a contagious illness with concerns about financial well-being, then add in a heaping portion of long-term uncertainty surrounding it all, and it’s a perfect storm. How can one avoid chronic clouds and “be a zebra?”

  1. Be aware of what your body is enduring these days.
    Are you eating well, or relying on convenient processed foods? How about sleep? Take steps to establish a nighttime routine that is screens-free, and consider an earlier bedtime. Value your rest.

  2. Give your breath a break.
    Try occasional deep, cleansing breaths, and be aware of shallow breathing or chronically clenched muscles.

  3. Find some new outlets for your energies.
    Plant a little garden or put some potted plants in your windowsill. Try a new exercise video. Get in touch with some old friends you haven’t communicated with in a while.

  4. Limit your overall media consumption.
    Remember that media outlets gain revenue from the number of clicks their content produces, so the more attention-grabbing the headline, the better -- for them, but not for you. Consider putting yourself on a “news diet,” in which you review the daily news in fewer installments, avoiding a constant drip-drip-drip of stories at arm’s reach via your mobile phone. One study found that 30 days off Facebook led to less time on the internet in general and a heightened sense of subjective well-being. While participants did report knowing fewer facts about the news, they tended to reduce their Facebook use even after the study ended.

 

Change something.

Painting room wall with paint rollerThat’s right -- as stress builds and the wait for a breakthrough grows longer, you’re likely feeling that loss of control. It’s beneficial to recognize that there’s much outside of your control, which makes all that wishing-hoping-lamenting that we tend to do not just fruitless, but fatiguing. Focusing on what you can control is better -- you can control your everyday routine, your diet, the time you spend reaching out to friends. What about taking it a step further?

Try making a change in your life. This doesn’t have to be a seismic shift or a life-altering step. The idea is to make a choice to introduce something new into your days. Start going to the municipal swimming pool once a week on Tuesday afternoons. Give away clothes you don’t wear anymore and reorganize your closet. Paint a room. Go on your own “Facebook fast” for 30 days, or step away from other social media you use often. The idea is to make a conscious decision that impacts your daily life -- you’re controlling what you can, and that alleviates your focus on all those factors outside of your control.

 

Advance your career when you’re away from work.

Webinar, distance learning. Person studying from homeBeing outside of the paid workforce doesn’t mean you have to ignore your career or give up on developing your talents. Think about ways you could volunteer your time. Experts affirm that unpaid work relevant to your career interests can make a valuable addition to your resume. Investigate an online class you can take, such as one offered through your local community college or university extension program, or a non-credit course offered at no cost online.

And finally, keep up your job connections. Get in touch with an old boss. Inquire with past coworkers to see how they’re doing. Revisit an online forum for workers in your field. Whether your old position returns or not, having a robust and up-to-date set of professional connections will serve you well in the long run.

 

Keeping focused and healthy amid this economic downturn is important. The inherent uncertainty of being on a furlough makes this need a high priority. By mitigating your stress “like a zebra,” experimenting with new things you can control, and progressing your career even when you’re not collecting a paycheck, you can continue to uncover hope and opportunity in 2020.

 

Are you an employer who has dealt with furloughs or layoffs and is looking for ways to assist your former workforce? Traitify provides tools to help -- check out the Traitify Engage product and reach out for more information.

 

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