As an executive coach, I’ve helped thousands of people find a new job after a layoff. In over a decade of this work, I’ve seen that over 95% of those clients were terminated not for their own poor performance, but for business reasons such as a merger or acquisition, increased industry competition, a weakened economy, or company restructuring leading to downsizing.
Research from Zippia shows just how common the layoff experience is in corporate America. In 2021 alone, there were 17 million layoffs. The studies also found that:
- 40% of Americans have been laid off or terminated from a job at least once.
- Nearly half (48%) of Americans have layoff anxiety.
- 28% of Americans have been laid off in the past two years.
In a 2022 survey of more than 1,300 CEOs at large companies worldwide, including 400 in the U.S., KPMG found that 91% of respondents believe there will be a recession in the next year — which will likely mean further widespread headcount reductions.
Despite the reality that factors beyond any employee’s control cause the majority of layoffs, most people I coach erroneously assume they should shoulder the blame. As their pressing work suddenly screeches to a halt, they assume colleagues who kept their positions were valued while they weren’t. It’s easy to start ruminating over possible explanations like, “I must have done something to cause this,” “If I’d been more dedicated, I wouldn’t have been the one affected,” or “I should have paid more attention to managing up.”
Getting laid off can feel devastatingly personal and hard on your mental health. Along with multiple hits from loss of income, status, daily structure, social support, self-esteem, and identity, there’s also the inherent uncertainty that often comes with mapping out your next career move. To compound the problem, many organizations do not communicate their downsizing plans with the care and respect that employees deserve.
To cope with the tremendous stress and pressure of a layoff without taking it personally, try these five strategies:
Name your feelings.
According to executive coach Deborah Grayson Riegel, when something threatening or stressful happens, it’s common to blame yourself, ruminate, and/or catastrophize — yet these responses are neither helpful nor productive. “In contrast, noticing and naming what you’re feeling in neutral language, putting it in perspective, focusing on the positive, and making a plan are all more helpful and adaptive,” Riegel says.
Identifying your emotions creates space between you and that feeling, helping you feel calmer. When you ratchet down your stress level, your amygdala — that part of your brain involved in the “fight-flight-freeze” mode — gives you space to come up with a more thoughtful response. With this in mind, take time to acknowledge what happened, think about the loss, and recognize your specific feelings, whether anxiety, anger, stress, shame, embarrassment, or grief. Grieving is a natural part of healing from any type of loss, which is why people often experience typical reactions to grief — including denial, anger, and depression — after being laid off.
Ask colleagues to reflect on your strengths.
In the aftermath of a job loss, you may feel hyperaware of your weaknesses, but shake it off — you need to articulate your strengths when pursuing your next career step. To bring your capabilities into sharper focus, ask former coworkers to reflect on these questions:
- When you saw me at my best, what was I doing?
- What was meaningful to you about this experience?
- What impact did I have?
- What strengths did you notice?
When you receive their responses, organize them by themes such as team building, integrity, perseverance, and curiosity. Finally, write a description of yourself that summarizes the information. This exercise can help you not only remember your strengths, but construct a workable plan to build on them during your job search.
Prioritize your next steps.
While your confidence may still be shaken, you need to move beyond any self-doubt and take action along your career path. By setting a professional goal and persisting through challenges, you can start believing again in your ability to succeed.
The key is to simply commit to doing something that will further your career intentions — for example by cataloging your accomplishments, updating your resume, asking trusted people in your network for feedback, and strategically reaching out to networking contacts who can provide insight into prospective career areas. Other actions might include revising your LinkedIn profile and crafting a list of target organizations.
Consider starting a side hustle.
As an additional next step, consider generating some income through an entrepreneurial venture — for example, by diversifying your portfolio of consulting/advising projects during your job hunt or building up a business idea you’ve wanted to pursue. Chief human resources officer and consultant Yuri Kurman advised his client, who was laid off from a fintech startup, to diversify his portfolio of consulting/advising projects alongside his new full-time job. When another of his clients was let go from a law firm, Yurman coached her to focus her time building up her wellness consulting practice, which she wanted to grow but never had the time when working full-time as a lawyer.
Starting a side hustle is a great way to see what you can do on your own, and it offers a perfect testing ground to try out a new career path or convert talents and hobbies into cash makers.
If you have time on your hands due to a layoff, this may be the ideal moment to leverage a side hustle to supplement your job search. Some side hustles have the added benefit of generating just as much income as a full-time job — or more. It’s also a great way to build “career insurance” as a fallback option during unemployment or economic uncertainty.
Shift your perspective.
Business journalist Natasha Souza has been laid off twice. Souza notes that “taking it personally holds you back from creating mental space and emotional energy to reorient yourself to a new identity and navigate this new exploratory phase in your career.” She suggests that “rather than stew in the emotions that come with making it personal,” it’s more productive to apply that emotional force toward unlocking avenues for future growth.
“A layoff can often be the best thing,” adds leadership coach Rashmir Balasubramaniam. “It can be a catalyst for personal growth and an opportunity to move towards something more purposeful, joyful, and fulfilling. When you are ready to embrace that mindset, it can become a gift, an opportunity to take steps you might not have had the courage to take.”
It is easy to feel embarrassed, guilty, frustrated, or angry when you’ve suffered a job loss. But if you recognize that many layoffs aren’t the slightest bit personal, it can help you stay focused on the future, not the past. Surround yourself with positive people, think of the obstacles you’ve overcome, and remember all you’ve already achieved. Instead of blaming yourself, build your confidence, and potential employers will notice.
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