The Six Stages of Job Loss

by J. Damian Birkel with Stacey J. Miller

Losing your job is a life-changing event. When your professional career is taken away from you, it is like you’ve lost a loved one. Common physical reactions are loss of appetite, problems falling asleep at night, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, anxiety attacks, and migraines. Worse reactions include irritability, palpitations, hyperventilating, and dizziness. You experience an ocean of emotions as you go from grieving over the job loss to acceptance with which comes the ability to move on.

The process of transition takes six stages:

  • Stage #1: Shock and denial. You wonder how this could have happened to you. The announcement of your termination doesn't seem real, but then nothing else does, either. Although you may feel punched in the stomach, the full impact may not hit for days, weeks, or however long it takes for the reality of the job loss to sink in.
  • Stage #2: Fear and panic. At this stage, every choice takes on exaggerated importance. You will feel as though the world will end if you make the wrong decision. Such panic and indecision are appropriate responses -- it’s natural to feel a tremendous sense of fear because your livelihood has been taken away. However, uncontrolled and disproportionate fright can drain your time and energy -- and immobilize you if you let it.
  • Stage #3: Anger. Once panic and fear have run their course, anger takes over. You want to throttle someone. Rather than let it take you over, you need to use it to energize you. You can use anger to propel yourself into positive activities that lead to reemployment. Don't try to ignore your feelings. If you don't recognize your feelings, you can't deal with them and can't heal.
  • Stage #4: Bargaining. Once you're done with gnashing your teeth, you may enter a stage in which you expect a job savior to step in to save you. You promise yourself that you'll never take home another company-bought pencil if your boss rehires you or your old buddy comes through with a job for you. You'll gladly work ten hours a day, six days a week, without complaint. You'll learn from your past mistakes and become the worthiest of employees.

    But too often there are no job saviors. As a client told me, "People may call, express concern and surprise about my job loss, and talk for a while. Then they were gone. They felt bad, but after they did their duty they wanted to go on with their lives. They wanted me to disappear because being in touch with me was a reminder of their own vulnerability." The bottom line is: If you're expecting a rescue, investigate the reality of what you're telling yourself. More often, you'll find a job but it will happen through your own efforts, not those of a miracle worker.
  • Stage #5: Depression. You may feel abandoned. Worse, you decide you probably deserve to be where you are. The depression is like a cloud that blots out your good feelings about yourself. To lift that cloud, you need to remember your self-worth. Pamper yourself, too. Do all the things you never had time to do. Play with your kids, and spend time with your spouse. Treat yourself as if you were your own best friend. Exercise to revitalize yourself.
  • Stage #6. Temporary Acceptance. At some point, the gloom recedes, and you realize it’s time to move forward. You are ready to create an action plan. You are ready to get on with your life. You absolve yourself of blame for your unemployment and, at the same time, charge yourself with the responsibility for your career.
Once you have reached this final stage doesn't mean that you are over the trauma of job loss. The cycle may repeat itself. Seemingly minor events -- a rejection letter, a curt response to a phone call, or not being invited to a holiday celebration -- can catapult you from the plateau of temporary acceptance to the depths of shock and denial, fear and panic, anger, bargaining or depression. Use the sanctuary of temporary acceptance to prepare yourself for the return of these nonproductive moments. Prepare yourself to face the working world again from a perspective of personal responsibility, forgiveness, and confidence.

Both J. Damian Birkel and Stacey J. Miller have experienced the roller coaster of unemployment and re-employment. Their book Career Bounce-Back! written to help others suffering from loss of a job due to downsizing or other kinds of restructuring. This article is excerpted from Career Bounce-Back! by J. Damian Birkel and Stacey J. Miller. Copyright 1998, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association, New York City. Used with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


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