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Strategies for coping with the stages of unemployment

Government data released last week showed 35,700 jobs were lost across Canada in November.

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Your industry is in a slump. Your employer is handing out pink slips. You're worried about losing your job. What can you do to cope?

During times of high unemployment, people may find themselves feeling hopeless, frustrated and turning to alcohol and other substances, says Deborah Kieran, a registered psychologist with the Calgary Counselling Centre. In a tough economic climate, she emphasizes it's all the more important for people to take care of their health.

Government data released last week showed 35,700 jobs were lost across Canada in November, bringing the national unemployment rate to 7.1 per cent.

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In Alberta, where the natural resources sector has shed nearly 30,000 jobs since oil prices began declining last year, Kieran says she has noticed an increase in cases involving alcohol and substance use. "Anger's on the rise," she adds. "Issues of domestic violence and violence in the home are always increased during periods like this."

Moreover, Alberta's suicide rate has jumped 30 per cent to 327 deaths recorded between January and June of this year, from 252 deaths in the first six months of 2014, according to data from the province's medical examiner's office, obtained from the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary. The centre's executive director, Mara Grunau, anticipates the suicide rate may increase even more in the coming years, as people currently struggling with the loss of their jobs exhaust their personal resources.

Grunau says a direct line cannot be drawn between the spike in suicides and the province's unemployment figures. First, while research suggests suicide rates edge up 0.79 for every 1-per-cent increase in unemployment, she says, this impact is not typically seen for at least two years, as suicide is considered a last resort – after people have run out of money and feel they're out of options. Moreover, multiple factors contribute to suicide. For some people, unemployment can be one of them, she says. "For others, it isn't."

Still, Grunau says the rise in suicides is "alarming," and a co-ordinated plan that includes easy access to mental-health care, reducing access to lethal means of suicide and education – from public awareness to technical training for clinicians and research – can prevent further deaths.

In the meantime, what can you do about your own stress in a discouraging economic climate? For any stage of unemployment, Kieran offers some strategies to cope:

You're worried about the prospect of losing your job. Now what?

If layoffs have started and you're still working, then trying to deal with survivor guilt and drawing reasonable boundaries at work can be really tough because you become so afraid you're going to be next.

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If your company has laid off a bunch of people, they may be looking at you to do more, and it feels almost wrong to stand up for your right to take a bit of a lunch break, for instance. Work through deciding what's reasonable. So if you're working a longer day, you might need to be more diligent about going for a walk midday, even if it's a short one. Sometimes, you might need to let go of that edge of quality that you used to have because you now have to do the work of three people instead of one.

It's also a really good time to start looking at such things as personal financing, so that if it does happen to you, perhaps you're a little more prepared. Maybe you've decided which cable TV options are really unnecessary or to have a staycation instead of that trip you were planning.

Start doing things like getting your résumé ready and prepare yourself mentally to sell yourself and your skills, not just to external employers but even to your own employer. If the company isn't going out of business, it can be a time of growth and opportunity for you to get into areas that might have interested you before. Going in and learning those new skills makes you both more hirable to your current employer and to other employers.

How can you deal with that survivor guilt?

Talk to family. Talk to friends. Make sure you get a good sleep at night. Doing something for others – whether volunteering in the neighbourhood soup kitchen or buying that extra bundle of food at the grocery store to give to the food bank – makes a difference in other ways that can be very helpful.

You've just received your pink slip. What can you do?

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It can be really important to be honest and upfront with your family. Some people feel a source of shame, but especially in this market, it's not about shame or that there's something wrong with you. So hiding it, instead of accepting it and being proactive, can be really detrimental.

Take full advantage of any employment services that your employer has provided. And if they haven't, usually provincial governments will have some form of programs, so take full advantage of any workshops on job searches, résumé writing or career paths. For some people, it might have been quite a while since they've had to do all that stuff, so make sure your skills for a job search are up to date. A lot of places have job-seeker clubs, where people get together and help each other look and practise job-search skills. Make your job search your job.

Maybe take a week off to destress. But then get right back on it.

What can you do about the sense of sadness that might come with a job loss?

It is a grieving, and like with any kind of grieving, it's only partially for what we've lost. It's also for the hopes and dreams we've had that are tied to it. We can grieve for a job that we didn't even like that much. And then we're ashamed or more frustrated with ourselves for doing so, but it's only natural.

Recognize that grief can be very up and down – you could be hanging in there pretty well one moment, then be swamped with negative thoughts or feel like it's an undertow sucking you under. Do what you can to hook onto those lifelines: your friends, your family and agencies in the community that support mental health, because all of this can lead to depression and anxiety.

If you've been out of a job for a prolonged period, what might you do?

Some people can become very hopeless and start to personalize job selection. It affects us personally, but it's not personally about us. Separate the fact that employers are looking for a set of skills, a personality and a knowledge set that fits with their current staff. You may have really good skills in that area, but you also have to fit into employers' idea of what it is they're looking for.

It's also about how good your skill set is for a job search, for selling yourself. In my experience, a lot of people choose times like this to join clubs such as Toastmasters to overcome their anxiety of speaking in public or to work with a counsellor to develop coping skills, so when they're in that anxiety-provoking job interview, they can impress the way they want to.

You need to keep reminding yourself that you're doing the best you can and people are still being hired, even in this market. See it as perhaps an opportunity to refresh and upgrade your skills. This kind of market tends to bring out an entrepreneurial spirit in many people. If the job that you absolutely love isn't available in the location you're at, is it time to maybe look at moving elsewhere? Is it a time to go back to school? To make a shift in your focus or your family's direction?

What about the financial stress?

Depending on your finances, banks can be quite helpful. There are organizations across the country that can help people refinance debt. If you live in the inner city, do you really need that car right now? Is there space in your home you can rent out? You really need the help of someone who really knows how to help you see the short- and long-term consequences of what you're doing.

At any point that you're worried about losing a job or have been unemployed for some time, it's really important for people to be kind to themselves and treat themselves gently so they can find the energy to get through this. Because like anything else, this too shall pass. Get out and talk to someone. It's not comfortable. But sometimes, you dig your nails in, you hang on and you can get through it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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