Dealing with the 5 Stages of Career Grief During COVID-19

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer April 14, 2020
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​If you were laid off or furloughed due to the coronavirus outbreak, there is a good chance you're grieving.

Career grief is a very real and emotional process that no one should have to go through alone, said JT O'Donnell  career coach J.T. O'Donnell, the founder and CEO of career management site Work It Daily, based in Hampton, N.H. She discussed with SHRM Online the five stages of grief as they relate to job loss, as well as how to get to acceptance and bounce back as soon as you can.

SHRM Online: What are some of the ways that career grieving is manifesting during this pandemic event?  

O'Donnell: If you've been laid off, you've lost your financial income. And you realize your work was considered not important enough to keep. Factor in the general economic uncertainty, high unemployment and hiring freezes, which mean you won't be able to just turn on your job search and get hired in a couple of weeks. It could be a long time before you find work again.

Managers are also being affected by being put into the awful position of deciding who keeps their job and who doesn't. That decision literally affects people's lives and managers are taking it personally.

The people who have remained after layoffs are grieving for co-workers who have lost their jobs and are hurting. That's on top of the constant apprehension of feeling like they could be next and the feeling that more work needs to be done in order to stay relevant and on the job.

SHRM Online: How do the five stages of grief relate to loss of employment?

O'Donnell: Denial comes first. This is where most people who have been negatively affected still are, because this is all so new and it's hard to understand the implications on your life. People look to distractions like the stimulus bills being reported on in the news, which help them believe everything is going to be fine. And that's what those announcements are designed to do, diminish fear and keep people calm.

Next comes anger, when it becomes clear that expectations will not be met. For example, people who've been furloughed and are waiting to go back to work will realize that not everyone will be brought back. Some will, and some will never get their job back. Dwelling on who was retained and who was laid off and why also leads to anger.  

People eventually realize anger is not productive and begin bargaining for whatever they can. They may apply for any job they can get. After doing this for a while and not seeing any results, depression hits and many will start to blame themselves. People come up with all the reasons why they can't find another job and they go completely helpless. This is where people can sit the longest. It's a hard place to get out of.

But finally, people push through to acceptance. Part of that is owning the situation, meaning accepting that "it is what it is." This is where you are today and all you can do is figure out what you need to do to move forward. Acceptance is making peace with the idea that there's no point in looking backward anymore.

People can also go back and forth through the stages. You can go from denial to anger and not like how it feels and go back to denial. People vacillate, which can extend the whole grieving process to weeks and months and sometimes even years.  

SHRM Online: How can people best navigate career grief?

O'Donnell: There are three things I recommend. First, go on a negativity diet and limit how much time you spend taking in news about the coronavirus crisis. It won't change dramatically day to day. Whenever you choose to be updated about what's going on, choose the time of day when you are most alert and positive. Some of us are morning people, and some of us are night owls. Whenever your natural state of positivity is highest throughout the day is when to take in updates about the pandemic. I'm a morning person, so I can read about the crisis with a cup of coffee and bounce back throughout the day. I wouldn't want to watch the news at night when I need to relax.

Second, now is the time to dream big and think about opportunities. Think about what your life could look like after this. What have you wanted to do? What have you been interested to pivot into? Feed your mind with those positive ideas. It doesn't matter if they come through later. It's about putting your brain in a proactive and creative state, which will help you stay stronger and work through things.

Third, find a community of people who are neutral or positive. Do not spend time with people who are being negative, griping about the boss or the company. That's of no help whatsoever. People can spend a long time in the depression stage. This is where you need to ask for help from mentors, peers, family or friends to help pull you out, surrounded by neutral thinking and away from negativity as much as possible.

And remember, it's totally normal to be going through these five stages. In fact, you have to in order to come out on the other side.

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