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How to Deal with Layoff Anxiety

The Great Resignation has given way to The Great Apprehension, as more than half of U.S. companies actively reduce headcount or plan to in the coming months.

 

As a result, layoff anxiety is palpable among workers. More than 39,000 workers have been let go in the U.S. tech sector alone as of August, including employees at industry titans like Peloton, Shopify, and Netflix.

As an executive coach (Melody Wilding), I have an inside view into the trepidation rippling through the workforce and how it’s affecting performance and mental health. Take my client Janice, an accomplished VP of client experience who told me, “Every day feels like a waiting game. I live in fear of the morning when I check my email and discover I’ve been locked out.” Or Noah, a content manager, who said, “My imposter syndrome has gone into overdrive. I’m working later and later to prove my value and show I’m worthy of keeping on board.”

If you relate to Janice or Noah’s examples, then you’re not alone. Nearly 80% of American workers are scared about their job security as recession concerns loom. Constant concern about losing your job is not only discouraging, but it can also significantly impact your well-being. Studies have shown that job insecurity can negatively impact your concentration and motivation and lead to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

Worst of all, layoff anxiety can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you feel helpless in the face of upheaval at your company, you may retreat and pull back on your efforts, which renders you a more likely candidate for cuts. I’ve also seen people’s insecurities drive them to work harder and evermore frantically. This can inadvertently signal that they lack prioritization and self-leadership — two skills employers seek in workers they keep.

Worrying about losing your job to the point of overthinking can be damaging. Proactively confronting your layoff anxiety is the best way to keep fears from getting the better of you. Here’s how.

Separate fact from fiction 

The stories you tell yourself may not always reflect reality, so monitor your inner dialogue. When Noah started paying attention to his thoughts more closely, he noticed that he often jumped to conclusions. For example, if Noah’s boss answered an email more slowly than usual, Noah felt paranoid that he was falling out of favor. I encouraged Noah to question this assumption. Noah realized that he was falling victim to confirmation bias, erroneously interpreting his boss’s behavior as evidence that he was going to be terminated.

Examine what evidence you have that points to the likelihood of a layoff and whether or not you’d be impacted. Consider:

  • Has your manager asked you to implement cost-saving measures?
  • Has the company instituted a hiring freeze?
  • Are sales consistently down?
  • Is your workload lighter than usual?
  • Are you being pushed out of meetings you previously participated in?

If the answer to most of the above questions is “no” then you probably have less cause for concern. If you still find that your thoughts are racing, try mindful breathing, imagining letting go of the unhelpful thoughts on your out-breath.

Take constructive action

If you do sense signs of a layoff, get more information and assess your situation. Are your projects high-value? Is your work revenue generating? Are you assigned to initiatives that senior leadership considers important? If not, speak to your boss about modifying your workload to ensure your time is well-spent. It’s also wise to cultivate relationships with internal stakeholders and keep your ear to the ground about news of reorganizations or restructurings.

Likewise, don’t wait to begin re-engaging your network. Reconnect with old colleagues and managers. Join an industry group or trade association. You’ll feel calmer about possible change if you have supportive people in your corner. Set aside a few hours to make sure your resume, portfolio, and LinkedIn profile are up-to-date. Even if layoffs don’t come, you’ll feel comforted knowing that you could make a move at any time.

Deploy defensive pessimism

Make worry work to your advantage by taking your fear out to its extreme. Ask yourself what you’d do if you were laid off. What are the next steps you would take? Walk through your plan in detail. Anticipate how you’d deal with obstacles such as your finances, health care, and finding a new job.

This may sound like a bleak exercise, but it can be very powerful. Research shows that mentally rehearsing your response to worst-case scenarios helps harness anxiety instead of allowing it to harm you — a strategy known as defensive pessimism. Creating contingency plans creates a perception of control amid an otherwise uncertain situation.

Rally your resilience

I asked Janice, one of the clients mentioned at the beginning of this article, to tell me about the three hardest things she had ever overcome. She looked at me quizzically, then played along, sharing: “Well, I was rejected from my top-choice college. I had a difficult time landing a job because of my untraditional background. And just a few years ago I went through a divorce.” “What did those experiences teach you?” I asked. Janice replied, “that I am stronger than I ever thought and always bounce back.” At that moment, Janice recognized that she had the resourcefulness to recover from a layoff, too, should one affect her.

Reminding yourself of how you’ve confronted and risen above adversity in the past is a well-proven resilience strategy. In one study, participants who reflected on how they had grown through life’s challenges showed higher levels of psychological well-being. So think about a time when you faced disappointment, hurt, or hardship. What strengths allowed you to pull through? What doors opened after?

Invest in self-complexity

It’s important that your work be part of who you are, but it’s risky to make it the entirety of your identity. Consider one study in the journal Frontiers of Psychology. Researchers found that people who reduced themselves down to one attribute — their job — felt dehumanized, like nothing more than a machine or a tool, and had higher levels of disengagement, depression, and burnout.

Now compare this with a concept from psychology known as self-complexity, which simply put, reflects the number and diversity of attributes that make up the meaningful aspects of who you are. The higher your self complexity, the more resilient you are.

That’s why it’s important to think about diversifying your sense of self, just as you’d diversify your finances. You can diversify your identity and create self-complexity by investing in different areas of your life. That way when things at work aren’t going well, you don’t lose your entire sense of self. You might choose to devote time to hobbies, your spirituality, or your health.

Living in fear of a layoff can be crippling. By managing your mind and taking proactive steps, you can ease your concerns and set yourself up to respond to whatever the future throws at you.

 

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