Grieving the Loss of Employment

Illustration of a sailboat. The sails are made of a manila folder and papers.

By Chris Rudnicki ’11
Illustration by Gracia Lam

The hard journey back to work.

As the world reels from the fallout of coronavirus, millions of individuals are silently experiencing the unique flavor of psychological suffering related to job loss and unemployment that my family knows too well.

My father was laid off during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. For the longest time, I thought his challenge was singular and better left unsaid. The emotional and psychological toll exacted on him was something to talk around, not through.

In the decade following that first layoff, my dad has wandered in and out of short-term contracting gigs, which are nearly always punctuated by several months of the seemingly Sisyphean task of job searching. It’s in those long stretches of unanswered LinkedIn messages and dead-end phone calls with recruiters that he struggles the most. In his words, he feels “lost at sea.”

Over the years, he and I both came to realize a fundamental truth about losing work and precariously walking the edge of employment: The psychological burden associated with being untethered—devoid of professional purpose and exposed to the myriad stressors of unemployment—is devastating.

A few years ago, I received a Manila envelope in the mail. Inside was a typed letter from my grand-father and a tattered copy of the April 5, 1982, issue of U.S. News & World Report magazine. My grandfather’s letter explained that he, like my dad, had once been laid off. Just like my father, he had suffered from the social and emotional challenges brought on by his job loss. In the aftermath of that suffering, he chronicled his struggles in an article for U.S. News. “‘You’re Fired!’ Memories of a Dark Day” appears in that 1982 edition of the magazine, and in the introduction the editor points out, quite rightly, that “few are willing to discuss openly this harrowing experience.”

For many that have been laid off or furloughed as a result of Covid-19, a new job will come soon enough. But for some significant portion of today’s unemployed ranks, the journey back to work won’t be as easy. Unfortunately, the guidance and support available to help them navigate that journey—whether it be public or private, nonprofit or for-profit—is woefully insufficient for the task at hand.

Being clear-eyed, calm and confident on the way back to work means tending to the psychological challenges brought on by unemployment, not neglecting them. So instead of helping the unemployed optimize résumés and covers letters, it’s time we help them grieve what they’ve lost and, only then, begin to piece their identities back together. It’s time we help them find purpose again.

I hope more of us can consider my grandfather’s example in these uncertain times. Now, more than ever, we need to talk through—and not around—the psychological toll of unemployment.

Portrait of Chris Rudnicki

Chris Rudnicki ’11 is the founder and CEO of Project Tugboat, a company aimed at helping the unexpectedly unemployed better manage the journey back to work.

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