Protracted Job Searches Exact Weighty Mental Health Toll


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Finding a new job is easy breezy … said no one, ever. 

BioSpace data indicates 76% of workers surveyed plan to seek a new position in 2023, even though nearly the same percentage also said they anticipated the job search to be more arduous than usual. 

Whether a job search is voluntary or not, months of interviews, wrangling over pay, benefits and options has a weighty psychological toll. Coupled with the high percentage of employees planning a job search in 2023, job search malaise or even depression, is very real. 

Particularly when looking for a new job is unexpected or undesired, as in a layoff, the psychological stakes raise. And they can do so very quickly. 

Though the life sciences weathered the pandemic better than most sectors, the constriction of the overall economy is likely to affect everyone, as we’ve seen with layoffs at Novartis, Sumito and Valneva, to name a few. Elise Gould

“What we've seen over the last couple of years is a pretty solid bounce back from the pandemic recession [in life sciences]," Elise Gould, Ph.D., senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told BioSpace. The EPI is a non-profit think tank.

Even though higher-wage earners may have more cushion than the lower-income strata most hit by economic constriction, workers who have the flexibility to look, will, she said. 

“What we see post-pandemic [with particular regard to workers with higher education] is a re-evaluating of priorities,” Gould said. Whether it’s because of a layoff or a voluntary job hunt, “... these workers are experiencing a shuffle. In good times and bad times, you have a little bit more leverage because of the nature of your experience and education. It gives you that ability to go and consider the kinds of flexibility you have now.”

Regardless of whether one’s job hunt is a necessity because of downsizing or an option to find a better work-life balance, its long-term effects can impact mental health.

Employment uncertainty can pose a challenge psychologically. 

A large body of research shows that unemployment and underemployment are linked to anxiety, depression and loss of life satisfaction, among other negative outcomes, according to the American Psychological Association

One expert in workplace psychology underscored the point. Mindy Shoss, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, researches the effects of economic conditions and the changing nature of work on employee well-being and behavior.Mindy Shoss

“People have psychological needs for stability, predictability and control in their lives, especially in the work domain. Work defines so much of our lives,” Shoss told BioSpace. “Our jobs influence our financial capabilities, our social status, where we live, the people we interact with and how we view ourselves.”

For life science workers, many of whom have poured years of education and chunks of cash into training themselves to perform at a high level (think: pay, quality of life, prestige) a hit to their careers can translate as a hit to their personas, as well. 

“[The workers] are clearly high-achieving individuals,” Christine Cauwels, associate director of therapy at Cerebral, a fully-remote company that provides mental health resources told BioSpace. “What that means is their sense of self, identity and worth can be wrapped up in their careers. When your identity is wrapped in your career and in your ability to be productive and succeed … When you're not doing that, you start to question yourself and that's when self-esteem goes down.”

Shoss echoed Cauwels’ concerns. 

“In difficult job markets, people not only face these uncertainties but also lack a clear end date for when things might get better. Our research finds that job and career uncertainty is psychologically taxing and associated with emotional exhaustion.”

A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 53% of American adults said they’ve felt like they lost a piece of their identity during the job hunt process. Another 56% said they’ve experienced more emotional or mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, due to their unemployment. In short, their mental fitness is suffering; 41% said they’ve had more conflicts or arguments than usual with family and friends.

Other indicators one may need to reach out for mental health assistance in a tough time may be increased procrastination surrounding the job search (avoiding applying for new positions); maladaptive coping (drinking or sleeping more, excessive exercise or disordered eating behaviors); prolonged anxiety, malaise or even depression, Cauwels said. 

Many of these people will need psychological support. Unfortunately, due in large part to the psychological toll of the pandemic and post-pandemic climate, mental health providers are sometimes scarce and waiting lists are long. 

Nonetheless, she advised that seeking help can help people caught in mental loops to stand back and challenge thought patterns that may say that job loss equates to failure. 

“Our society is so wrapped up in being successful,” she said. "We lose track of the fact that there's so much more to us besides our jobs.”

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