Grief and Job Loss: Tips for Coping with the Social and Emotional Impact of Layoffs
Kelli Dunlap is the director of mental health research and design at iThrive Games. She holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and directs iThrive's mental health and game development initiatives.
On Tuesday, February 12, games publisher Activision stated it would be laying off 8% of its workforce - about 800 people - despite record profits in 2018. Mass layoffs in the games industry are not uncommon, nor are exploitative working conditions (i.e., crunch) and job insecurity. In response to recent events similar to the Activision layoffs, there's been a call to unionize the games industry and confront current common practices in the games industry such as crunch and "feeding game developers to the machine." Addressing the current work culture is critical to the future health of the industry and its workforce, but large systemic changes take time. So what's a person to do in the meantime?
— Polygon (@Polygon) February 12, 2019
After the layoffs were announced, there was ー and continues to be ー an outpouring of support over social media offering condolences, commiseration, and job openings. Some of those directly impacted by the layoff took to social media to share their grief:
Today was my last day at Blizzard Entertainment. I knew that layoffs are commonplace in the video game industry, but I somehow always thought that if I could work really hard, get the right education, and be an exceptional employee that they'd never happen to me. I was wrong.
— Jennifer Mallett (@Jen_Mallett) February 13, 2019
Job Loss and Mental Health
Grief is the body's reaction to loss. Any loss that disrupts a person's sense of self-worth or the stability of their livelihood can be grieved. Job loss is no exception. Decades of research has shown that loss of employment, especially when it is unexpected, can have a psychological impact similar to when a loved one dies.
Losing a job can set off a cascade of additional losses, some obvious like loss of income, health insurance, and financial security, and some less obvious like loss of social status,
For every time in my life that I've had a pit in my stomach, I still cannot begin to imagine the grief of those affected by the Activision Blizzard layoffs today. It's truly terrifying, and I wish them the absolute best in this trying time.
— Brian Turner (@BT_HawkGuy) February 13, 2019
For Those in Grief
For those grieving the loss of their jobs, their security, their livelihood, it's critical to remember that grief is not about passing through set stages from denial to acceptance - everyone's path through grief is unique and often complicated. It is absolutely okay to not feel okay, to feel your feelings, and to not instantly spring back as though nothing happened. Searching for a job can be just as distress-inducing as losing a job, so take the time to take care of yourself. Small things like listening to your favorite song, eating a comforting meal, connecting with friends, snuggling a pet, can buoy you while you're riding waves of emotions.
Grief extends beyond emotions and can impact physical, social, and cognitive abilities. People in grief may experience physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, fatigue, digestive problems, social symptoms like feeling isolated or withdrawing from others, and cognitive symptoms like difficulty concentrating and self-blame.
If you're feeling overwhelmed, reach out to someone you feel close to that will listen and not jump to "fixing" the situation. Setting up boundaries for the conversation can help you get your needs met and make the best use of your support. For example, "Hey, I'm having a tough time. Can we talk?" invites a back-and-forth conversation whereas "Hey, I'm having a tough time and need to vent. Not looking for answers, just a supportive ear" clearly conveys a desire to be heard and validated without judgment or troubleshooting.
If you feel you need more support than you currently have, please reach out to a mental health professional. Many providers offer sliding scale services, meaning they can adjust their rates to fit your budget, and most are willing to work out accommodations for those with financial constraints. Additional resources can be found via Take This' mental health resources page.
- Feel your feelings, even the unpleasant ones.
- Seek support from those who will listen without judgment or trying to fix things.
- Seek support and connection with others who have been laid off as they can most closely understand what you're going through and make you feel less alone.
- Take care of your whole self, both mind, and body.
- As best you can, ask for what you need as specifically as you can.
- Let anyone tell you how to feel.
- Listen to anyone who tells you-you shouldn't be grieving or how to feel.
- Bottle up or suppress your emotions.
- Expect the grief to go away overnight or follow an orderly or linear pattern toward recovery.
How we want grief to work verse how grief actually works. pic.twitter.com/CWNhgvex8M
— Caleb Wilde (@CalebWilde) May 9, 2014
For Friends of Those in Grief
Like experiencing the death of a loved one, job loss often evokes a variety of unpleasant thoughts and intense emotions such as anger, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, and bitterness. Each person experiences and processes their own thoughts and emotions in their own time. If someone is "in their feelings," the best thing you can do is be supportive, listen, validate their feelings, and be present with them.
When people we care about are in distress, we experience an empathetic echo of that distress. It's normal to want to push uncomfortable feelings away. We may try to distance ourselves from those emotions by saying things like "don't worry, everything will work out," "everything happens for a reason," or "that job sucked anyway." These kinds of platitudes, however, minimize and invalidate a person's experience even though their reaction is appropriate and understandable given the circumstances.
- Acknowledge the pain, sadness, and other unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
- Be present.
- Validate their thoughts and feelings.
- Provide support that they find comforting (i.e., hugging those who are comforted by touch, making dinner for those who are comforted by familiar friends and foods, sharing words of affirmation for those who are comforted by verbal support).
- Point out a silver lining.
- Minimize or invalidate the emotions.
- Convey a need for the person to "move on", "buck up" or "get over it."
- Make it about you (i.e., I know what it feels like...).
Research suggests that the pain you feel from a social loss, like the loss of job and the daily relationships you have with valued co-workers, activates the same pain pathways as having a physical injury. In other words, your brain processes the pain of job loss the same way it processes the pain of a broken limb. This is why grief can feel like being punched in the gut or like your heart literally aches. When we see a friend in distress, we often jump to problem-solving or "fixing" the issue. This is a natural response - when someone we care about is in distress, we want to make them not be distressed because we care about them. However, offering solutions before working through the salient emotions is like trying to put a cast on a broken limb before setting it. It's the equivalent of applying the right kind of help at the wrong time.
When a person is ready to start working through their grief it means they are taking steps toward managing and addressing the emotional and psychological symptoms rather than solely feeling them. This is where linking to job openings, leveraging connections, and rallying resources become a helpful and actionable kind of support. Keep in mind that each person will arrive at this point at a different time. For some, it's a logical next step. For others, getting to this point can take time.
- Recognize that the pain and unpleasant emotions are still there, albeit less intense, and will be for some time.
- Check in about what kinds of support would be helpful and provide specific tasks you can take on (i.e., setting up a meeting over coffee, sharing job postings, reviewing their resume etc.). This allows the griever to simply say "yes" or "no" rather than think up a task and then ask for help.
- Continue to check up and check in over time. People need support immediately after the incident as well as later on during equally stressful phases of unemployment like job searching, interviews, and starting a new position.
- View your friend as a thing to be fixed.
- Be put off if your friend declines your help or doesn't act on your suggestions. (It's not about you!)
- Ask "how's the job search going?" every time you see your friend; if something has come up, they'll let you know.
If you are worried that you or someone you care about is in distress or in need of crisis resources, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or message the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741. In case of emergency, call 911.
Losing a job sucks and everyone will process, cope, and move forward in their own way, in their own time. If you're the type to see job loss not as a setback but a set-up for a new adventure, that's great. Taking time to work through your emotions, to feel sad/angry/bereft/or any other feeling you may have is also a legitimate strategy. Unpleasant emotions like grief are a way our minds alert us to danger or injustice and a flag for others that we need support. For those in the position to provide support, understand that for some moving from one job to the next is a minor inconvenience while for others it can literally be the difference between food on the table or going hungry; of affording life-preserving medication or going without. Adjust the support you give accordingly. For additional mental health resources, check out Take This' mental health resources page.
As always, take care of and be kind to yourself.
Please note: This post was written prior to the layoffs at Electronic Arts and ArenaNet. If you need assistance, please reach out to the resources shared in this article or comment below with any additional resources you know of.