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Layoffs: How to Prioritize Your Mental Health After Losing Your Job, From Telling Family to Self-Care

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A yellow and green toned illustration of a human figure, with one hand on their head, and another touching their chest.
After getting laid off, taking care of your mental health is crucial. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

This guide is part of the KQED News series What to Do After a Layoff.

Getting laid off can have many immediate consequences — losing your source of income, having to cut back on spending and dipping into your savings — but it can also have emotional repercussions.

A job can represent security and stability, and when that is taken away, our mental health also takes a hit. So, looking after our mental health is equally critical as figuring out how to keep paying the bills. If we don’t respond to our mental health needs after losing a job, that can hamper our ability to problem-solve, says Redondo Beach-based Kelli McLean, a marriage and family therapist who works on issues relating to trauma, anxiety and depression with her clients all over California.

“Once one crisis happens, it’s more likely for additional crises to happen,” she said. “Mental health is like a snowball.”

Since the start of the pandemic, researchers have been learning more about the relationship between layoffs and mental health. A 2021 study by Irish and American researchers sampled 2,301 adults in the United States who had a job before the start of COVID-19. Those who were laid off reported higher symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress than those who kept their jobs.

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“You lose your job, and then what happens is stress,” said McClean, who noted that once stressors increase, that “snowball” effect can lead to possible outcomes like tension with a partner, a breakup or overreliance on substances like alcohol. Because “these things tend to happen, one after another,” McLean said, “it’s really important for us to be proactive when we’re in a crisis, as opposed to pulling the covers over our head.”

KQED spoke to several mental health professionals across California, including McLean, to hear their thoughts on how you can deal with the emotional fallout of losing a job, the best ways to reassure and support those who depend on you and how to protect your mental health as you prepare for your next move.

Every situation is different, but here are some bigger insights that could be of use during difficult times.

When you first get the bad news

Why do many of us feel so bad when we lose our jobs? Of course, part of it comes from the very real challenge of losing our source of income and not knowing how we will pay our bills.

But over time, our jobs can become part of our identity. When we lose our jobs, that part of who we are is taken away. “Your work persona, your work identity — it comes to you over time, but it doesn’t define you,” said Ioanna Angelakis, a marriage and family therapist based in San Francisco. She helps patients navigate career decisions and the anxieties that may be tied to them.

“I come from a perspective that we all have infinite capacities and we have so many strengths that are left untapped,” Angelakis said. “Look at your dreams and define who you want to become, and who you always dreamed you would become.”

Then, Angelakis recommends, “take the time to contrast that with your recent role. See if there is a mismatch — and whether you can pick up where you left off.”

It’s also important to remember that you are not alone in this experience, adds McLean. “This happens to most people at some point in their career. Most of the time it’s not your fault.”

“It’s simply random,” she went on. “It’s simply because of budget cuts or because the company is downsizing.” Read more about how to make a layoff feel less personal.

Both McLean and Angelakis stress to be kind to yourself after you get the bad news. This is just the first step in a longer journey, and granting yourself patience will help you face the coming challenges.

An Asian woman with long dark hair and medium toned skin wearing a black tee shirt looks to the side, as if worried.
Therapists stress that it’s important to treat yourself with kindness after a layoff. (Loannes Marc/Pexels)

How do you tell loved ones you’ve been laid off?

Figuring out how we want to share the bad news with those we care about can be another source of anxiety. These people can include our friends, partners or spouses, children and parents.

“We begin to feel like we failed — that we failed them, or that we were not able to fulfill our goals,” said Angelakis. But you should let yourself release those thoughts, she advises, and remind yourself that a layoff does not define your potential — as a professional, or as a person overall.

When you raise the news with your spouse or partner, share what you’re feeling and be clear about what type of help you need from them, Angelakis said: “You can remind them … to be your ally.”

And if you have both a partner and children, make a plan with your partner first on how you want to tell your kids — depending on how old they are and what you know of their emotional capacity for topics like this. But most importantly, she stressed, “Be age-appropriate.”

“If you’re talking to your 6-year-old child, you don’t want to say, ‘Mom got fired,’ or ‘Mom got canned.’ You might want to say something like, ‘Mom’s not going to the office for a little while,’” she said.

“I think a lot of people go into this talking to their kids like they’re little adults,” McLean said. Although that might be your impulse, it “can be really scary for a child if they’re being talked to like they’re a little adult,” she said. “Kids tend to worry about this kind of thing if it’s not handled age-appropriately.”

For younger kids more capable of handling upsetting news, as a parent or caregiver you might consider keeping it simple — that you don’t have that job anymore and are looking for an even better one, perhaps — and assure them there’s nothing to worry about.

You can also be honest with kids about how you feel, McLean says — but make sure to be clear about whether some things at home will change moving forward, even temporarily. “If you’re cutting down on some extracurricular activities, make sure that you’re still doing things with the kids where they’re getting quality time with you, maybe if it’s just going to the library, or going to the park,” she said.

And make sure to keep checking in with your kids consistently while you’re looking for your next job. Children “tend to have tummy aches, or they tend to say, ‘I’m not feeling good’” when they’re worried about something, McLean said. “If you’re comfortable with their teachers, maybe let their teachers know, and keep to your family structure as much as possible.”

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Making time for self-care

If your former employer did not provide you with a severance package and you are under financial pressure, self-care may not immediately strike you as ranking high on your list of priorities. But setting aside time to catch your breath and do something that benefits you is actually critical to making sure you can be at your best when looking for a job.

San José-based marriage and family therapist Mariya Katrina Punay points out that a layoff is a type of separation, like a breakup or divorce. In some cases, workers have spent years working alongside people who may have become like family.

If we don’t take care of ourselves through this experience, like you would during another kind of separation, Punay says, it could put you at risk of longer-term consequences.

If the reality of the situation is “not addressed in a healthy way during the separation process,” she said, “it can be very stressful. And in the very rare case, it could be retraumatizing for those people that have not healed their job or workplace separation trauma from a previous employer … [who] jumped from one job to another without having to take time to look at how that kind of interaction has affected them.”

So what does self-care look like after a job loss? If you have the option to take some time off before looking for a new role, Angelakis encourages you to fill up this time with things you always wanted to do but were prevented from doing by work. “Think about all the things that have been put on hold that are fun, inventive and creative,” she said — and seek them out.

Angelakis also stresses the importance of having a “gratitude practice.” This, she says, “is the time when you can fill up your time helping others,” but also an opportunity for you to make “a ritual out of being grateful for all of the things you have.”

“Focus on the things that you do have in place,” Angelakis says. “The less we have, sometimes, the more grateful we become.”

And even if you have to go straight into the job search or you already have another job, Angelakis recommends setting aside some time each day, even for a few minutes, for your gratitude practice. “Brief with peers who also were laid off, go outside, maybe treat yourself and get your feelings out and to process what’s going on there,” she said. Read more about finding community among other folks who’ve been laid off.

Keeping a day-to-day structure is also part of self-care, says McLean, especially during a job search.

Not hearing back after multiple job applications can start to make some folks feel “depressed and hopeless,” said McLean. To combat this while you’re not working, she recommends having “some kind of structure to your day. You’ll get up at the same time. And do your résumé for two, three hours,” and then exercise. Read more about how to balance job applications with healthy activities.

Two hands type on a laptop in front of a window.
How can you balance actively searching for work with taking care of your emotional needs? (Cottonbro/Pexels)

When should you seek additional mental health support?

McLean emphasizes just how vulnerable we are when we lose our jobs unexpectedly. “One of the biggest stressors is being let go of a job,” she said. “It’s going to make it more likely for people to start engaging in their substance use. It’s going to put you at higher risk for depression, anxiety.”

McLean notes that people who have “a predisposition towards depression, anxiety, any type of mental health issue or substance use issue” should be especially aware that they might need additional support after a layoff through mental health counseling — “because they’re at higher risk for a relapse in either a mental health issue or a substance use issue, because it’s such a big stressor to lose a job.”

But even if this is not your personal situation, talking to a mental health professional about everything that is on your plate can go a long way if you’re also juggling family responsibilities.

When times are tough, many parents and caregivers tend to prioritize the needs of their children and other family members, and can sometimes overlook their own emotional and physical needs, says Angelakis. “As a mother, I know how hard it is to put yourself first,” she explained. “But if you don’t put yourself first … you’re going to start to burn out.”

She acknowledges that for some parents, it doesn’t come easy to set time aside to talk about their feelings. But, she says, it’s in those difficult moments that you need to take care of yourself, so you can take care of those who depend on you.

Last year, Angelakis herself lost her job at a children’s mental health nonprofit, around the same time her son was in a serious accident. From personal experience, she says, she knows “it is so challenging to step away and take care of myself first, because my child is my first priority.”

“In these circumstances, you feel like you just have to be these robotic individuals who just keep going, like the Energizer Bunny. And we’re not built that way,” said Angelakis.

“We’re human. We have feelings. We have needs. And those basic needs left unmet are going to manifest.”

How can I access mental health care if I no longer have insurance?

If you received health care insurance through your employer, that coverage will stop soon after the layoff. This can make it harder to find mental health support and can potentially create a difficult situation if you are already seeing a therapist or have a prescription for a mental health issue your insurance helps cover.

But there are several things you can do, says Punay from San José. After you’re told about the layoff, your employer will contact you to go over some paperwork that finalizes your employment. That’s when you want to ask how long your insurance benefits will last after your last day at work and about COBRA, a federal and state law that allows workers to continue receiving their health coverage for a certain period after losing their job.

Also, if your employer offers you a severance agreement, this can be the time to negotiate better terms for you and your family before agreeing to sign.

While going through insurance paperwork may not feel like the most exciting or engaging thing to do after losing your job, Punay acknowledges, it is still important because it can help you get the tools you need to look after yourself.

“For some people, it’s so easy to not bother with this stuff because they’re busy looking for work,” she said. “However, it’s also important that you advocate for yourself — because advocating for yourself, especially after a job loss, can be looking at the paperwork that you don’t want to look at.”

It’s important to remember that COBRA coverage is not free and premiums can in fact be quite high. Individuals may be charged hundreds of dollars, and family plans can go for thousands of dollars.

“While someone’s employed, their employer typically pays part of the premium. So that means it’s low cost,” said Tyler Sadwith, deputy director for behavioral health at the state Department for Health Care Services. “But after someone loses their job, while they have the ability to stay enrolled with that same health plan, they actually then become typically responsible for the full premium.”

“At that point, they could see what other options might be available,” he explained. “If they’re married, that could include enrolling in the health plan of their spouse or their partner. And that could also mean applying for Medi-Cal or other options under Covered California.”

You can review discounted health care plans — and see whether you qualify for Medi-Cal — by visiting Covered California’s website. Once you’re covered, you’ll have access to services including mental health evaluations, individual and family therapy, and support for prescriptions as well. And remember: Medi-Cal covers all children in California, regardless of immigration status, whose families meet certain income requirements.

Another option California offers, Sadwith says, is CalHOPE, a peer-based, free, counseling service available through text, phone and video chat, available 24/7. When you call (833) 318-HOPE or (833) 318-4673, you’ll be connected to a member of the CalHOPE network — someone you can talk to about what you’re going through.

“CalHOPE is really designed to provide support … have someone share the burden that [you’re] feeling that day and get some light-touch support,” Sadwith said, clarifying that “CalHOPE is really not intended to be professionally delivered clinical mental health care, and it’s not extensive treatment or ongoing.”

What if you’re already seeing a therapist when you get laid off? Make sure to quickly let them know your situation, says McLean. “Some health care professionals will see clients pro bono or will see them on a sliding scale,” she said.

And there are several nonprofit organizations that work to provide low-cost and sliding scale counseling and therapy services. See more resources on how to find affordable therapy in the Bay Area here.

Make sure to read the rest of our KQED guides about other steps you can take after a layoff to better support yourself and those who depend on you:

This story was originally published on May 19, 2023.

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