How to beat the fear of unemployment

And sleep easier at night

I was chatting my neighbour the other day and he’s worried. The sun was beating down in green and leafy Cheshire, home of Bentley Motors but it wasn’t enough to lift his mood.

The prestige car maker is making 1,000 people redundant. My brother-in-law is also in the mix. My neighbour has spent the last 12 weeks furloughed and to my envy, has been out in the sun making his house look beautiful. New lawn, re-painted exterior, new garage doors etc.

“If it happens, I’ll just feel like I’ve let the girls down, you know?”, he said to me. He has two primary school aged kids.

“I do know how that feels,” I replied.

During my 18 years in the corporate world I was made redundant three times. Before any of those occurrences happened I spent nine soul-destroying months unemployed.

I had come back from working abroad in 2002. In the five years before that, at the start of my career, I’d had done well in the PR world. Promoted three times in five years, I then accepted the challenge of turning-around a publishing company, in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Is that the sound of your sympathy ebbing away? I wouldn’t blame you.

Roll forward three years and mission accomplished. Publishing company saved and prospering. I then spent a year in second different country, re-structuring a marketing team for an online gaming business.

In 2002, I returned to the UK, married and optimistic about finding a new job, after my track record of ‘success’. I was less optimistic for my Canadian wife.

How wrong I was. She found a job within two weeks, teaching English as a second language. Six months went by for me. Application after application, interview after interview and not a sniff.

By Christmas I was so desperate I took a job picking for the online shopping giant, Very. It was Littlewoods Shop Direct back then. It paid minimum wage and on the 6am to 2pm shift. I like to think I’ve never been an arrogant person, but it was humbling.

I used to look at the cars of the managers and think, “How did it come to this? Why can’t I get a job?” I vowed though that I would not quit and keep on until things changed. The only saving grace to those few weeks was that I lost 28lb in weight. Silver-linings and all that.

By the March things weren’t any better. We moved out of my parent’s house an into a flat. Our savings had all but gone and I was hiding the fact that I was teetering on the edge of depression. My wife would go to work and some days I’d go back to bed, close the curtains and stay there most of the day until she came home. I’d pretend I was OK and had been up job hunting.

What I didn’t know then that I do now

There are a couple of things relevant here. The first is that it will be OK. I didn’t die. I didn’t end up on the streets and things did get better. How much better?

Well, within five years I was Head of Corporate Communications at Littlewoods Shop Direct. By a round-about route I landed up there. I hated it and was made redundant two years later, but that’s another story and not the point of this article.

I/R Theory

The other thing I didn’t know then that I do now was I/R theory. I came across after investing my own money in some sales training with Roy Johnson from Sandler.

Here’s how I explained it to my neighbour.

The I/R Theory (Identity/Role) represents the dual nature of our lives. Each of us has an “I” and an “R.” Our “I” represents our values, beliefs, principles, desires and emotions, our inner selves. It’s who ‘we are’.

Our “R” is the many roles we play in our lives, or our outer selves. These roles include son, daughter, friend, student, salesperson, etc.

The problem comes when we attach too much of our ‘I’ to one or more of the roles we play. Think about it. When you meet someone new, often the second question off their lips is “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer,” might come the answer. Or a fireman, broker, doctor or “I’m just a housewife”. For the record, there’s is nothing ‘just’ about being a housewife or househusband.

We attach too much importance to our perceived ability or success in any of the roles that we play. None of them are who we are. They are things we do.

If we confuse our role performances with our value as a human being, our self-image will go up and down with each performance. Regardless of the level of our self-image, we work to bring our performance into line with that self-image.

Therefore, if we translate our “I” perception as a rating between 1 and 10, without a 10 rating for our self-image our role performance is limited.

How do you rate your “I”?

If you rate your “I” between 8 and 10, you are a winner: You have a healthy self-image. You feel good about yourself most of the time, no matter how you are performing in your roles.

If you rate yourself between 4 and 7, you are an at-leaster: If things go fairly well on your “R” side, you feel pretty good about yourself. If your role performance goes badly, you work to get back to average. People in this position tell themselves, “I may not be a winner, but at least I’m not a loser.”

If you rate your “I” between 0 and 3, you’re in the category of non-winner: You allow your role performance to affect how you feel about yourself. That poor self-image affects your performance, putting you in a cycle of self-defeating attitudes and behaviours.

“That makes total sense,” he said.

“We need to create a Chinese wall between our ‘I’, who we are, from our ‘R’ the roles we perform,” I replied.

“Look, I know and teach this stuff and I still forget it sometimes,” I told him. “If you lose your job you won’t have let the girls down. How you choose to respond is what matters.” I could see from his face that he understood, a wave of relief and realisation seemed to lighten his mood.

Pretty much every person I’ve met falls into this trap. Some never escape it. They are the ones destined to a life comparing themselves to other people, attaching unrealistic importance to their perceived success in any of the roles they play.

How evolution is working against him and you

There are two root causes of all mental stress. These are:

  1. Fear of losing approval
  2. Fear of not being in control

Both of these have come about over millions of years of human evolution. We are a tribal species and needed to work together to find food, shelter, warmth, security. To survive.

If you got kicked out of your tribe or separated from your tribe, your life expectancy reduced. As a result, we have become hard-wired to prevent that from happening. We learnt to change our behaviours, social hierarchies were created and we were careful not to get kicked out or down them. We still see that in our closest ancestors, the chimpanzee.

Children know instinctively that their survival depends on other people. Many of us take this fear into our adult relationships too.

When we feel we are ‘failing’ in one of our roles we fear losing approval, often of thoe closest to us.

The second fear is the fear of not being in control. There are three subsets to this fear:

  1. the need to be right
  2. the need to be perfect
  3. the need to be able to explain, predict, understand.

Unemployment or the threat of it triggers our stress response because both of these fears have been activated.

I felt the fear of losing my wife’s approval after months of knock-backs. “Why would she want to be married to a guy who can’t even get a job in his own country,” was a thought that would linger like a stain on the carpet.

I dare say, my neighbour might be worried about what his girls would think if he couldn’t take them away on a summer holiday.

Then there is the issue of control. Often to be made redundant is beyond our control. Unless of course you’ve done something to deserve it. In his case, and in the three times I was made redundant, it was nothing I could control.

When this happens, it can be hard to take. When there is no ‘meaning’ behind our stress it becomes more destructive. Add to that the fact that we can’t predict what the future will look like and when we will get another job, especially in the midst of a global recession, and you have a recipe for chronic stress and even depression.

We need to talk about Johann

Or rather his work. Johann Harri is a journalist and author of Lost Connections — Why you’re depressed and how to find hope.

What he uncovered during his four years of research and speaking with many of the world’s leading scientists, is that depression is largely caused by the way we are living today.

What’s that got to do with unemployment?

What we know now is that most depression is caused by disconnection from nine things:

  1. Disconnection from meaningful work
  2. Disconnection from other people
  3. Disconnection from meaningful values
  4. Disconnection from childhood trauma
  5. Disconnection from status and respect
  6. Disconnection from the natural world
  7. Disconnection from a hopeful or secure future

Eight and nine are the role of genes and brain changes

When you look at that list, it’s easy to see why unemployment, or an extended period of unemployment, can lead to low-mood and depression.

I reckon it hits at least four of the seven: meaningful work, other people, status and respect and a hopeful or secure future.

As Ryan Fan says in his review of Hari’s book, “depression is a sign that your needs aren’t being met, and you need to find ways to fulfil those needs.”

Work fulfils many important needs. It gives us status, meaning, purpose, a sense of pride, not to mention money. All things that influence are self-esteem.

Grief is often misdiagnosed as depression and what many people don’t appreciate, is that grief can apply to the loss of anything, including a job. Human beings are hardwired to protect what they have against loss more than gaining something.


Because for most of human existence we have operated close to the edge of survival. The loss of a day’s food could cause death, whereas the gain of an extra day’s food would not cause an extra day of life (unless the food could be easily and effectively stored).

Today, this means it is better to not lose £5 than to find £5.

Loss aversion was first identified by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, author of the best seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Of course, it’s not the only the financial loss that affects us as we have seen from Hari’s research. The status and ‘respect’ we feel our job gives us is lost. Remember I/R theory?

Then there is the hopeful and secure future. Bring all these things together and we can start to see why redundancy or the threat of it can have such a devastating effect on us.

How to protect yourself

Now you have a better understanding of your hardwired psychology, you are in a better position to manage its negative effects.

The first is to be kind to yourself. You are not your job, or any other role you play. You are more than that and you are enough. Roles will come and go, some days you’ll knock it out of the park and others you’ll strike out.

The point to remember is there always another day. Do the best you can on any given day and go to bed satisfied. As Baz Lurman said, “The race is long and only with yourself.”

Which means stop comparing yourself to others. Why? Because no one cares. Honestly, they don’t. They are more concerned about themselves, their insecurities, their fears and comparing themselves to others. Give yourself a break.

And that comes to worrying about letting your children down. There is a ton of research that shows that when asked, children value their parent’s time and attention way above any fancy holiday or the latest cool clothes or car.

Don’t believe me? Ask them. And if they answer any other way, then maybe the best thing for them is to have more of your time and less of the money-bought ‘stuff’. This could be a blessing in disguise for both of you.

Lastly, control the controllables. If you can control or influence something focus on that. If you can’t do either, let it go.

I’ve got 18 other do’s and don’ts of job hunting based on a decade of my own experience and working with people in your position, but I’ll save those for another article. That’s enough for this one.

Questions to consider:

What am I trying control?

What don’t I control?

What could I control instead?

How can I start to think differently about my current situation?

. . .

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Helping people use mental fitness for a great life. Author of Mental Toughness Metaphors — Stories to inspire resilience

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