The Emotional Side of a Layoff
by Brenda L. Peterson, The Layoff Lady
All The Feels
Whether due to an economic downturn, an acquisition, or a company reorganization, I’ve found myself in an unexpected career transition quite a few times. Even having been through more than my share of layoffs, it’s still an emotional experience each and every time. Here is the good, the bad, and the ugly of the feelings I’ve personally gone through.
The phone call from HR, the perp walk through the office to the dreaded conference room, the last-minute ominous meeting invite, or the oddly timed tap on the shoulder all seem to come out of nowhere. There is something surreal about being pulled into a virtual or in-person room and having someone look you dead in the eye and tell you that you are going to go through a significant life change starting, well, now.
Even if there were layoff rumors, or news about leadership changes, or low sales reported for the quarter, it’s always a surprise on the date and time when layoffs go down. It’s the feeling of the ground being pulled out from under. It’s the gap between expecting a full day of meetings and finding yourself in your car mid-morning with a white box.
Even in cases where I was actively looking for a new role, a certain amount of anger goes along with a layoff. I was angry learning about the people who didn’t get laid off (like that guy whose messes I’ve been cleaning up for the last year) and comparing my perceived value to theirs.
I’ve been angry at the timing (right after vacation, right before a holiday) and how that makes finding something new an even longer process. I’ve been mad that yesterday’s mission-critical work-all-night project has become irrelevant. But, mostly, I’ve been mad that someone else decided when I didn’t get to do that job anymore instead of me getting to choose when it was time for me to move on. Feeling that lack of control is often the most challenging part.
Exiting a job abruptly leaves a big hole in your life, starting with the 9+ hours per workday being replaced with dead air and uncertainty. People who earlier that day were coworkers, casual work friendships, or confidants now may be nothing at all now that you no longer share an employer.
The consistency of a morning routine, daily commute, and regularly scheduled meetings are replaced with a battle with the unknown that may last a week or a year. Sometimes it’s easy to be hopeful about the future, and other times it’s hard not to be mired in sadness about all the things you can’t control.
There is plenty to be afraid of. First, the idea of not having a paycheck is horrifying. Not knowing how long your final payout or severance check has to last is unnerving. Now knowing how long your jobless period will last and what job you’ll end up with is sometimes unbearable.
I fear being unemployed endlessly and not being able to support myself. I worry about panicking and taking the first job offered to me. I worry about holding out for something closer to the “perfect” job that may never come. I fear that I will never get a job as good as the one I had. On the worst days, when fear has given way to full-on catastrophizing, I worry that I will lose my house, car, professional reputation, and everyone I’ve ever loved.
Here's the one that might seem unexpected. At one point, during an ongoing economic downturn, I made it until the seventh round of company layoffs. While I was happy to be employed that long, each time we heard rumblings about reorganizations or started seeing those empty white dots pop up on Microsoft Teams, I had that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach waiting for it to be me.
The strange benefit of finally being laid off is that you don't have to worry if it will happen (and when) because it just happened. At that moment, you also realize it's not as bad as you imagined it might be, and now what there is to do is pick yourself up and create your fantastic new future.
The Good News
Through the tumult of emotions, it’s important to acknowledge each one and process those feelings. It’s helpful to grieve, then focus on all the possibilities to come.
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7-time layoff survivor Brenda L. Peterson, The Layoff Lady, waxes poetic on layoffs, job transitions, & career resilience.