Pink slip, gray days
'Corporate refugees': The biz of being jobless
(CNN) -- "You can never entirely prepare for the devastation of a job loss, it's just impossible. Even when you're warned, it still hurts."
Timely words from therapist and author Ruth Luban. This morning, CNNfn has reported a sharp jump in new claims for unemployment benefits last week -- 361,000 for the week ending February 3, up from 346,000 the week before, according to the United States Labor Department. In Michigan, the state logging the highest rise, new claims jumped 23,565 for the week ending January 27. California, Illinois and New York also are reporting big increases in new unemployment claims.
As workers from an array of industries get their walking papers, many are feeling the emotional pain, that particular anxiety related to being laid off.
Luban is a psychotherapist based in Santa Monica, California. In counseling layoff victims, she encourages them to acknowledge the severity of the situation and deal with it before running out to quickly find that next job.
"One thing is to not avoid the recognition that this is a stressful life experience and there's no way to gloss over it," says Luban, author of "Are You A Corporate Refugee? A Survival Guide for the Downsized, Disillusioned, and Displaced Workers" (Penguin, 2001).
New Year's firings
In January, many American corporations -- by no means just dot-coms -- announced an estimated 142,208 job cuts, a jump of 6 percent over December's layoffs, according to data released Tuesday by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm.
Headlines have reported layoffs, real or pending, in companies including DaimlerChrysler, Amazon.com, Lucent, and General Electric, together representing tens of thousands of job terminations. The cuts have included some media organizations, the AOL Time Warner CNN News Group, which includes CNN.com, losing some 400 employees.
"The numbers of layoffs that we're seeing right now are common in two places," says Rick Cobb, corporate vice president and national director at Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "One is the Fortune 500s that are continuing to consolidate, become more efficient, and seeking to become that nirvana. The other is the more popular, smaller number of dot-coms that find that they have to be responsible to basic accounting procedures and get their numbers more realistic."
Cobb says that even with the U.S. government's report of a rise in unemployment -- from 4-percent to 4.2-percent -- jobs still are plentiful and the market is very active: Just as many companies are downsizing in some areas, they're restructuring and hiring in others.
Ed Potter, president of the Employment Policy Foundation (EPF) agrees, saying it's important to keep the recent of layoffs in perspective.
"If you look underneath the 4.2-percent job-loss numbers, you'll see some important counter-indications," says Potter. "While the total number of unemployment rose by 300,000, overall employment grew over 163,000 in the month of December and over a million compared to January 2000," according to EPF numbers.
The foundation also finds that the average duration of unemployment has fallen from 6.1 weeks to 6.9 weeks, the shortest in a decade.
"This gives a sense that while there's a lot of noise in the system," Potter says, "these layoffs have less to do with the state of the economy and more to do with what's happening within particular companies," Potter says. "It's a different thing. But it's hard for people to see that."
That explains why therapists like Luban are in high demand and ready to help workers cope with their unemployment. She compares people who have been laid off to refugees. Luban defines "corporate refugees" as "victims of forces beyond their control."
"The pink slip is precipitously delivered. It's not as if the worker caused the job loss, nor is it that they even wanted to shift gears or that they were tired," says Luban.
"They've lost their sense of place and/or root structure, where they get to prove themselves and demonstrate their capabilities and their character over time.
"It's unceremonious the way they drop you," says Luban. "People have used the analogy of a divorce, but my response to that is you usually know trouble's been brewing for a long time when you decide to leave a relationship. This isn't the same. It's like the rug being pulled out from under you. It's a kind of death of your relationship to the structure that got you up each morning to do that which gave you a sense of family."
Luban takes the corporate refugee through five stages focusing on the emotional and financial results of unemployment. She wants to return ex-employees to the workplace with confidence. Her book names the five stages "on the brink," "letting go," "wilderness," "seeing the beacon," and "in the new land." Each phase provides a survival kit and daily rituals for the refugee to practice.
When you're "on the brink," you notice resumés left in copy machines, closed-door meetings and the start of a rumor mill. Luban says these signs indicate that radical change is about to occur in the office, but most workers dismiss them. "People are usually in denial because they don't want this to happen. My push is to be proactive: Get your ducks in a row financially, get your resumé and files organized and accept the fact that these signals are real. Even if the job doesn't go away, it helps to get organized and with this kind of marketplace you just never know."
Grief is the theme of Luban's second stage, "letting go," after you receive notice that your job no longer exists.
"People personalize a pink slip, even if they were reassured over and over that their work was good," says Luban. "It's a bottom-line decision, it's not about you. But it's impossible not to personalize it."
Luban tells her clients to "actively grieve" by venting their anger and joining support groups with other corporate refugees or talking to friends and family. She shares stories in her book from people who sought her help after they were forced out of a job.
In the "wilderness" stage, Luban says refugees can wander, delve into their creativity and perform a true self-assessment. She provides various exercises in her book to help readers think about their experience, skills and the marketplace. Luban also stresses an "out-of-the-box exploration."
"The wilderness is derived by not being allowed to know what's next until you do your homework. The people who stop and do this are so much better off because they really clarify their values and priorities," Luban says. "We're caught up our job that demanded 80- hour work weeks. There was never time for us to stop and say, 'Is this really what I want to be doing?'
"When you have a period of not having to work that way it's really critical to say, 'Do I want another job like that?' And if people don't stop, they end up making lateral moves because they're fearful of not having any income."
Accepting free-lance or temporary work can supplement your income so you're able to take adequate time needed to progress through the "wilderness." Luban emphasizes patience and not compromising your vision and dreams.
In her fourth stage, "seeing the beacon," Luban uses the metaphor of a ship lost at sea. The refugee notices the light through fog and the signaling to safe harbor.
"After you've been wandering in the wilderness and you've done your work, something will rise to the surface that it is so clear, that your skills, passion and preference are tailored for the job," explains Luban.
The refugee then enters "the new land," an environment that will become the worker's new, occupational home.
"People have to know that just because the refugee has landed in a new job, they're not necessarily safe," cautions Luban, referring to the instability of today's workplace. "It's about building resilience, holding your boundaries, not giving 80-100 hours a week to the job and not losing your identity to the job."
Luban's goal is for refugees to successfully complete all five stages in case they have to trudge through the refugee experience again.
"If you recognize your identity is much more than your role at work -- keep reinforcing the balance with fun, family, and exercise, maintain your health and build resilience -- you'll have the best shot at moving through the stages the next time more quickly."
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