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Unemployment: The Mental Toll


Between March and November, the number of payroll employees has fallen by a staggering 782,000. Attention is immediately drawn to the financial implications but it is just as important to remember that unemployment can have a significant effect on people’s mental health and wellbeing.


Our jobs do more than simply pay the bills. They become part of our identity and contribute to our sense of self-worth. Consider these fundamental emotional needs that we need to have fulfilled in order for our mental wellbeing to be healthy:

  • A sense of security
  • A feeling of being in control
  • The ability to receive and give attention
  • Feeling part of a wider community
  • Having emotional connection to others
  • Feeling a sense of status that is acknowledge
  • Having a sense of achievement and competence
  • Being mentally stretched in ways that give you a sense of meaning and purpose


For most of us, employment provides us with opportunities to meet many of these. In most cases, a job provides us with more security than not having work, in terms of financial income, having a sense of routine, knowing what is expected of us and having a greater sense of certainty. That in turn enables us to feel more in control of what we do day-to-day and how we will get through the next week/ month. Even when we work from home, we are part of a wider community – we are not alone. Depending on our employer and our own initiative, we are able to foster relationships where we feel connected and where we are able to receive and provide our colleagues with positive attention. By the way, most of us could do more of this!! And a job can give us a feeling of status, if only in terms of independence. Having work to do, where we are able to achieve what is required of us and where we know we are competent enough for success boosts our self-esteem. Although we may not currently have a role that is our ideal choice, having a commitment such as employment can provide us with a sense of purpose, even if that is about getting out of bed and get dressed. Knowing that we can fulfil what is expected of us so that we get paid, or that we’re contributing to a company being able to remain open and customers being able to access provision, can give us a sense of meaning.


Now take employment away.

Imagine there is no more job. Maybe you are already experiencing that harsh reality. It is normal to feel an initial sense of freedom and energy without the usual commitment and pressures. But this can quickly change to a sense of loss and grief . When people understand they are going through a loss by becoming unemployed, it can allow them to be more compassionate with themselves and allow them to feel and accept their emotional responses.


Without insight about the significance of these emotional needs on our mental wellbeing, it is too easy to slip into a place where we feel lost, depressed and anxious. A lack of certainty drives up emotional arousal, making us more prone to over-thinking, catastrophising, becoming fearful and lacking confidence. In the absence of finding new employment fast, it is imperative you find new means to meet these needs in creative ways that reduce your risk of experiencing poor mental health. For example:

A sense of security – accessing what ever support is available to you, financial and other, as part of a plan to find new employment, develop your CV and make time for self-care to calm your anxious brain.

A feeling of being in control – make a plan. Having a longer term view and working back to structure your day gives your brain a sense of being in charge instead of being a victim. Adopting a positive mindset that challenges our internal dialogue from negative self-doubt to a more positive, optimistic approach enables us to feel more self-worth and control.

The ability to receive and give attention – make more effort to check in with family, friends, ex-colleagues. We are social creatures and need to feel noticed. Small gestures make a difference; they help others feel good and that’s more likely to be reciprocated.

Feeling part of a wider community – find an alternative group of people to be part of. That may well be online – there appear to be groups for pretty much every ‘hobby’ now and although virtual communities might not feel as fulfilling for some people, they can fill a gap during lockdown.

Having emotional connection to others – invest time in your friends. Find time to go for a walk, or chat on the phone or over Zoom. It is easy to assume others are too busy but we all need time to connect. That includes being authentic about how you feel and also being in the moment with that person. In other words, allow yourself to have fun and switch off from worries.

Feeling a sense of status that is acknowledged – get creative about other ways of feeling good about who you are, what you do and your contribution. That might be from volunteering or developing a new skill and sharing your progress, such as baking (who doesn’t like cake?!).

Having a sense of achievement and competence – making the most of this opportunity as a positive space to develop your strengths and skills, whether that’s about your cv or an interest that you would like to explore. Perfecting the piano or tending to your garden might not pay your bills but it will boost your mental wellbeing and that will put you in a stronger place to find future employment.

Being mentally stretched in ways that give you a sense of meaning and purpose – doing something worthwhile, that is a healthy challenge, that you are passionate about and believe in makes time flow. We have a sense of engagement and worth that are critical for our wellbeing. It doesn’t matter what this is about… fund raising, Sudoku, DIY, helping a friend… there is something for everyone.


It’s ok to not be ok. Short term. But it is important to make things as ok as they can be in the current circumstances by taking control and investing in yourself.


For more advice about how to cope with the mental toll of unemployment, whether that’s about your own experience or someone you know, drop me a line. Stay healthy.


Source: Office for National Statistics November 2020