After lakhs of jobs were recently slashed in India’s automotive sector, the next wave of layoffs is expected to hit the Information Technology (IT/ITeS) sector. Companies like Cognizant, Infosys and CapGemini are reportedly planning to collectively let go of thousands of people. The companies themselves have mostly denied the reports, saying all that’s happening is normal attrition and routine sacking of underperforming employees. However, it is apparent today that the slowdown in consumption and industrial growth has put many jobs in India at risk. And while companies look at layoffs in terms of profitability, there is a larger cost that goes beyond sterile balance sheet economics: the mental health consequences of layoffs.

Jobs are closely linked to self-worth

At conferences, parties and gatherings alike, it is one of the first questions people ask: “So…what do you do?”

Many people derive a strong sense of identity and social status from their job. Losing that job, especially when the dismissal is perceived as an ‘unfair’ act by the employer, can be tough. For such individuals, a layoff can evoke a sense of loss, sadness, shame and worthlessness, says Dr Paulomi M. Sudhir, Professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at NIMHANS Bengaluru. 

“A lot of significance is attached to being “gainfully employed”—a logical conclusion to one’s education,” Dr Sudhir says, adding, “Layoffs (actual or imminent) trigger a sense of loss and uncertainty and are seen as a negative life event that’s not in the person’s control.”

Counselling psychologist Sushma IR adds, “There can also be a fair amount of guilt for not living up to social and familial expectations; this would be more pronounced in men than women.” She adds that other coping behaviours include shunning social interactions in order to avoid questions and unsolicited advice, and depressive feelings.

Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Varkha Chulani adds that a toxic, generalised definition of self-esteem that hinges on seeking validation from external sources is also a contributing factor. “Scientific studies show that self-esteem is defined at an individual level. Thus any broad interpretation of self-esteem—for example based on job or position—is flawed and a detriment to your wellness,” she says. 

Layoffs affect people differently

Hurt and anxiousness about the future are common reactions to job loss. But they’re not always signs of a mental condition. Dr. Sudhir says negative emotion regulation strategies like blame, anger or sadness become mental health issues only if those actions and feelings persist over time.

Experts add that different people react to workplace stress, including related to job loss, differently. The reaction can be based on factors like:

  • Work context: work environment and facilities,
  • Work content: type of tasks performed, the person’s skills versus the demands of the job,
  • Specific circumstances: whether it was a mass layoff or restricted a small group/single individual
  • Individual factors: one’s ability to deal with uncertainty, their perception of ‘stressful’ events, pre-existing vulnerabilities to mental health conditions, perceived contribution to the organisation, level of seniority, etc.

Since people have different ways of coping with stress, it all comes down to your attitude. “Your outlook and attitude can either help or hinder the process of emerging from a stressful period,” says Ms Chulani, who advises clients undergoing such situations to “accept hope, rather than condemn and mope.”

Dealing with job loss

Allow yourself to express your feelings: Sushma IR says one way of expressing your emotions is to write them down on a piece of paper. “Write down situations, address people in first person (like you would in a letter), be candid and vivid about how you feel, and allow yourself to cry as you write. One you finish writing, destroy the paper either by tearing it or burning. Do not read it or get someone else to read it,” she says.

Seek emotional aid or professional help: Reaching out to family and friends is also important, especially if the anxiety and uncertainty extend and interfere with your functioning. “Seek professional help, when these problems persist (sleep difficulties, persistent anxiety or sadness, a sense of hopelessness, worthlessness and/or helplessness) as job loss may be a trigger for other common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression,” says Dr Sudhir.

Ask yourself ‘What Next?’: Ultimately, the most important thing is to move from a problem-focus (“Why me?” ) to solution-focus. Thinking of ‘what’s next’ and taking action is important. For example, empower yourself by learning or relearning vital skills. Or tap into your network to find jobs.

Make peace with struggle: Ms Chulani also says our society needs to focus more on building “emotional muscle”. “We are becoming so fragile and brittle as a people; we keep trying to run away from struggle and suffering and then hide behind mental health. As a society we need to build better coping mechanisms and to teach our children how to make peace with struggle,” she says.

Use the downtime:  If your finances allow, use the time to take a break, refresh and rejuvenate your mind, and assess your options through cool contemplation. Take a vacation if possible and reconnect with loved ones before plunging back into the world of work. 

While the ultimate responsibility for managing workplace stress lies with the individual, there is much organisations can do, like being aware of employees who are vulnerable to mental health issues, providing access to avenues for professional help, and reducing stigma around seeking help. And if you have a friend or family member who has gone through an experience like this, resist the urge to offer unsolicited advice or ask unwarranted questions. Allowing them the time and space to find the way out is extremely important.

Do you have a relevant experience to share around workplace stress, or know someone who does? Write in to [email protected]!