How to Recover from Job Loss

Becoming unemployed affects your wealth as well as your health, a study says.

May 14, 2009

Job loss is painful, but it doens't have to put your health in jeopardy.

05-14-09 RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Job loss seems to jump-start long-term health problems, according to the findings of a new study published in the journal Demography. Losing your job is stressful, of course, but the new research implies that the stress does more than exacerbate your nail-biting or cause some anxiety-filled sleepless nights. “You expect that after people lose jobs, they wouldn’t feel as well, and that they would tell you they weren’t feeling well,” says Kate Strully, PhD, author of the study and an assistant professor in sociology at the State University of New York in Albany. “But what’s impressive are the clear psychological/physiological links caused by stress.”


THE DETAILS: Strully analyzed data collected data from surveys that took place in 1999, 2001, and 2003. A total of 8,125 employees in both blue- and white-collar jobs answered questions about their job loss and the situations surrounding it (for example, whether a few individuals were laid off or if an entire office shut down) and any health issues they may have had. People who lost their jobs as a result of an office or factory closure seemed to suffer the most, increasing their chances of developing a new health condition by 83 percent. Getting fired or laid off individually increased the likelihood of new health problems by 43 percent (leaving a job voluntarily only boosts likelihood by 20 percent).

Interestingly, the effects didn’t always go away once these people were reemployed. “It’s hard to tell exactly why that’s happening,” says Strully, “but it could be the nature of the health problems people develop from job losses.” The most common conditions that employees developed, she found, tended to be chronic: diabetes, hypertension, other cardiovascular problems, and certain types of arthritis. “Once you cross the line with these problems, it can be difficult to reverse.”

WHAT IT MEANS: When you lose a job, it’s very easy to make your health your lowest priority. “You’re going through something difficult and you are indeed stressed out,” says Strully. “Long-term health conditions aren’t at the forefront of your mind.” You’re also suddenly on a limited income and prone to buying cheaper, less-healthy food, she adds, which can worsen stress-related heart conditions and diabetes.

Here are a few ways to keep your health a priority in the midst of a stressful job slump:

• Enjoy a little freedom. Most job coaches will advise you that once you get laid off, your new full-time job should be looking for a new full-time job. That being said, you also have fewer time constraints and have more opportunities to stick to an exercise regimen. So take advantage of your more flexible schedule and exercise often. But don’t waste money on a gym; call a friend, suggests Strully. “People are more likely to do exercise if they have a friend,” she says. “Call up friends and say, ‘Let’s meet every Wednesday to go for a walk.’”

• Be pennywise, but don’t skimp on the veggies. It’s easy to eat healthy on the cheap, and the solutions don’t involve wilted lettuce from a fast-food salad. For tips, see "Save Money on Food Without Squandering Your Health.”

• Make time for moral support. Strully says she’s often contacted by labor unions for advice on how to help laid-off employees, and her primary advice to them is to form support groups. “There’s a lot of research showing that social support helps reduce the negative effects of stress on health,” she says. “And people who have strong support networks tend to do better when exposed to stressful circumstances.” Having a place to share experiences and tips on budget living can do wonders for your mental health, so check with a local church or community center to see if such groups have formed in your neighborhood. If not, and you don’t want to form one yourself, use your weekly exercise sessions with a friend in the same way. He or she may be laid off and in need of a vent session, too. The key to coping, says Strully, “is enabling people to rely more on social support systems.”

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