Formerly unemployed workers face performance-draining anxiety

An article in the Wall Street Journal talks about the performance anxiety some people who’ve been unemployed for a long time experience upon going back to work.

Having recently been through the twin traumas of job loss and unemployment, they worry they’ll lose their new job and get caught up in that awful cycle all over again. Their anxiety, if left unchecked, can impair their performance in their new job, The Wall Street Journal article notes, thus leading to another layoff.

I came across this phenomenon when I was researching and reporting my story, IT Careers: Can You Survive Unemployment. Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist who now practices as an executive coach, referred to the depression that people experience during unemployment as “situational.”

That is, the depression is spurred by a particular situation—unemployment—and for many people, the situation lifts once the individual lands a new job. However, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan in 2002 found that job loss and unemployment can leave lasting psychological scars on their victims. The depression and lack of personal control that accompany job loss and unemployment can last as long as two years and can prevent people from finding new work, the University of Michigan researchers concluded.

The feelings of fear, anxiety and depression that the University of Michigan researchers observed can also hamper people’s performance in a new job, according to John Wilson, a psychology professor at Cleveland State University. Wilson told The Wall Street Journal, “Stress-related symptoms from being unemployed will carry over into the new job for a significant number of people.”

I’m concerned that this performance anxiety some unemployed people face upon reentering the workforce might give employers another reason to avoid hiring people who are unemployed. Let’s face it: Enough employers are already so cagey—justifiably or unjustifiably—about hiring unemployed candidates.

Obviously, employers want to hire candidates who can hit the ground running and have an immediate impact. They don’t want to recruit people who will have trouble adjusting to their new work life or who will be so angst-ridden about the possibility of losing their new job that they’re unproductive.

Theoretically, they don’t have to worry about those sorts of performance issues if they hire someone who’s currently employed. But they may have to worry about it if they’re considering a candidate who’s been out of work for, say, a year or more.

I don’t want to see employers use this performance anxiety issue as another excuse for dismissing unemployed professionals as damaged goods, but I can’t help but wonder what impact it will have on unemployed professionals’ job searches.

Do you think it will make hiring managers even more cautious about unemployed candidates? And is there anything candidates can do to combat this situation?


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