The Hidden Mental Costs Of Unemployment

Unemployment takes a toll on your wallet, but it can make a bigger impact on your mental health. Here’s what to do about it.

The Hidden Mental Costs Of Unemployment
[Photo: Flickr user Paul Friel]

“Everyone thinks the biggest impact of unemployment is to the wallet, but it’s not. Finances certainly take an immediate hit, but it’s the individual’s mojo that suffers the most,” says Marilyn Santiesteban, assistant director in career services at Texas A&M University.


She worked as an outplacement training consultant before and during the recession, meeting with laid-off employees immediately after getting the bad news. The psychic pain of feeling, “Something must be wrong with me; why won’t anyone hire me?” takes a real toll.

Looking For Meaningful Work Can Make You Feel Less Efficient

“When we are busy, we tend to be far more efficient and better organized,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “When we have unlimited open and unstructured time, I have discovered that my clients tend to be highly inefficient. And yes, being inefficient is often equated with being lazy which is never good for boosting our confidence.”

It’s a matter of mental momentum: When your days are filled with accomplished tasks and your achievements are recognized by colleagues, you’re more likely to keep the daily grind productive.

The pressure of staying “on task” that people in the white-collar workforce feel, is echoed in the unemployed life, notes Dr. Orfeu M. Buxton, associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State. With spouses or family members watching, time taken to find meaningful work can look lackadaisical from the outside. To be able to show something for their time, an unemployed person might spam 50 job postings with uncustomized resumes in a week, instead of spending thoughtful energy on five quality applications.

The hard mental work of finding out what fulfills you, Buxton adds, looks from the outside like slacking off. “The introspective process for doing that may look like nothing is being accomplished at all,” he says. “In fact, it may go best with lots of time spent on other healthy behaviors, like having a good diet, exercising, getting regular sleep, all of which would make the introspective process less stressful, and the person more attractive as a job candidate.”

Anxiety Is A Vicious Cycle

Tossing and turning, dwelling on a verbal slip in an interview or a mishandled job lead: That torment has a name. Part of “perseverative cognition” is the prolonged worrying about something that hasn’t happened, or rumination on something out of your control.


Imagining something extreme happening–never getting another job in your life, for example–elicits a response as fully stressful as it actually happening, Buxton says.

Rejection Is Exhausting–And Visible

Carrying the weight of months of job rejections–including those applications that disappeared into the ether, never to be followed up with again–can make it difficult to put on your most chipper face on for interviews to come. “All they see is our mood and how we feel about ourselves and that is what they will base their decision on.” says Cohen. “So the rejection and subsequent discouragement create a loop that is enormously difficult to emerge from.”

“We all need a reason to get out of bed every day, and people who feel like they’ve been rejected from repeated employers may feel like they lack a real sense of meaning and purpose,” says Amy Morin licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.

A defeatist attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, Morin says. Repeated rejection, and feeling like you’re doomed from the start, makes getting a job even harder. Body language deeply affects how how others see us, after all. When one candidate arrives fresh-faced and exhuding confidence, and the other shows the wear-and-tear of a year-long job hunt, the odds are stacked from the start.

How To Stay Healthy–And Sane

Enough about how depressing and mentally exhausting unemployment can be. Santiesteban gives these survival tips to the newly unemployed, or longterm, ready-to-snap job seekers:

Keep a routine. Adhering to a schedule gives a sense of purpose and accomplishment–and when you don’t have a boss bearing down on you for deliverables by EOD, you’ll have to hold yourself accountable. Creative people keep rituals for coaxing out their muses.


Get out there. “Daily isolation and boredom will derail the best plans,” Santiesteban says. Job hunting can’t happen from the couch. Daily meetings with former colleagues, informational interviews at companies that interest you, and speaking with people who energize you all boost your chances while improving your mental health. “Most people come away revived and energized; compare that with submitting a resume and never hearing back.”

Take care of yourself. Not every waking moment can–or should–be consumed with a job search. Santiesteban advises three hours in the morning for work-related tasks like job-searching strategy, then “shut it down” for a walk, exercise, or meditation.

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.