by Meridith Levinson

IT Careers: Can You Survive Unemployment?

Mar 22, 2010
CareersIT Jobs

If you lose your job, get ready for a wild ride on the emotional rollercoaster. Your daily routines, lifestyle, relationships and identity will be upended, say IT executives who survived long job searches and unemployment to tell the tale.

George Moraetes, an information security executive, hasn’t been able to find a steady job in two years. As a result, he’s had to consider moving into a smaller home. His wife is losing her patience with him and with their financial situation, and his children tell him he’s a loser.

“Did you find a new job yet?” he says they ask him every day. “Why can’t you find a job?” they ask.

“They don’t understand,” Moraetes says. “There are no jobs. Unemployment, especially long term, is devastating.”

Joblessness can lead to much more than financial ruin. It precipitates bouts of loneliness, feelings of inadequacy, even full-blown depression. Unemployment ravages people emotionally because it disrupts every aspect of their lives—their routines, identities and relationships.

Mental health experts say those emotions are common among unemployed professionals, but they can cripple a person who needs to tap her self-esteem while job hunting in a tough market. Such emotional trauma doesn’t bode well for the 14.9 million people who are currently unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. (For advice on coping with the emotional upheaval unemployment brings, see Unemployed? 10 Ways to Fight Depression in Your Job Search.)

Despite his troubles, Moraetes keeps fighting back. He spends 10 hours a day on his job search, firing off résumés to suitable job opportunities, attending networking events, staying active on social networking sites like LinkedIn and Twitter, and doing volunteering in his field. He’s even written software that mines unadvertised job opportunities on the Web.

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Coping with feelings of worthlessness, resentment inside his family, and financial insecurity hasn’t been easy. Moraetes and other IT executives have faced many psychological trials following their job loss, and in this story they share how unemployment has affected different aspects of their lives.

“The stages you go through when you lose a loved one—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—many people go through the same thing when they lose a job,” says Lisa Caldas Kappesser, an executive coach and author of The Smart New Way to Get Hired: Use Emotional Intelligence and Land the Right Job (JIST 2010).

Stage One: A Life Out of Balance

Jason Alba remembers stepping out of his house to get the mail one weekday when he was unemployed four years ago. It was midday, and Alba was still dressed in his pajamas. As he squinted at the houses lining his street on that bright, sunny day, something seemed out of place.

Alba’s suburban neighborhood was eerily quiet. No cars passed. No dogs roamed. All the houses were locked up. Alba was the only soul haunting his street.

Then it hit him: He was the one out of place.

“All of these houses have people who go to their jobs and pay their bills,” he thought,” and I’m sitting on my La-Z-Boy trying to send e-mails out.”

Most people’s lives are structured around their jobs. Their daily routines, Monday through Friday, commence with the ringing of an alarm clock, followed by a tense commute to the office, eight to 10 hours of hectic activity, then a return trip home. Work, however stressful or satisfying, gives people a reason to get out of bed five days a week. Weekends, meanwhile, are largely spent preparing for or decompressing from work.

But when someone loses his job, suddenly there’s no structure anymore —and the loss of routine can be completely disorienting. “You don’t know where to go in the morning,” says Stuart Schneiderman, a former psychoanalyst who’s now an executive coach. “You don’t know what to do. You lose your bearings.”

Out-of-work IT professionals, though, have found a workaround for the loss of their work routine: They make a job search their new routine, and they attack it with the same rigor they applied to their previous jobs. They rise early, shower and dress, and work for eight to 10 hours on their job search.

Besides changes to daily routines, unemployment triggers other dramatic lifestyle changes. Because an income has been lost, an individual, couple or family may not be able to maintain the same standard of living that they previously enjoyed. Thus, luxury SUVs get traded in for practical sedans. Gym memberships lapse. Eating out ceases. Kids’ karate lessons get cancelled. Clothes wear thin, along with everyone’s patience.

“You have to watch everything,” says Lou Bonica, an operations and IT executive now in month seven of his job search. “People ask me, ‘What are you doing this summer?’ I tell them, ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know if I’ll have a job. I may not be able to afford a vacation. Everything in your life is, you don’t know, and I have to tell you, that’s not fun.”

Stage Two: Alone and Afraid

Sticking to a job search requires the self-determination of an Olympic athlete, yet a merciless job market with a gloomy future can wear down the unemployed. For IT professionals familiar with well-defined project roadmaps that lead to measurable returns on investment, the uncertainty and lack of control unemployment brings is not just frustrating; it can be downright frightening, too.

“The calls you make after the first month are the same calls you make 10 months later,” says Bonica. “There is no progression, no feeling like you’re making progress. If I could say definitively that it’s going to take me a year to find a new job, mentally I could probably accept it better because at least I could be working towards a goal. But I don’t know if it’s going to end tomorrow, six months from now or a year from now.”

Bonica says several executives who’ve landed jobs after long bouts of unemployment told him that they never felt like they were making progress in their job search, either. Then one day they woke up and went from not having a job to having a job. “That’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “When you’re an executive, you’re not used to that. I’ve gone my whole career making things happen.”

Overwhelmed with the fear of the unknown, many people withdraw into themselves. Alba says he increasingly disengaged socially during his unemployment four years ago. Not wanting to worry his wife with the lack of progress in his job search, he stopped talking to her and retreated into his bedroom (which doubled as his office). He dreaded monthly dinner parties that he and his wife attended at neighbors’ homes: He didn’t want to be asked how his job search was going.

The uncertainty associated with joblessness shook Arun Manansingh, now CIO of The Judlau Companies, to his core. He says he felt the same sense of panic during his recent 17-month bout with unemployment that he experienced after his mother had a stroke nine years ago.

Making matters worse for Manansingh and for many others in his situation, he initially lacked a strong support system. Aside from his wife, most of his social contact prior to unemployment came from his job.

“My work life was pretty much my whole life,” he says. “Outside of work, I didn’t have much of a social network. At the CIO level, you’re working almost 24-hours a day, seven days a week running an IT department. When that’s gone, you become like a shut-in.”

One way to climb out of this hole is to get out of the house and join a group of people in similar straits, which isn’t hard given the current rate of unemployment. Manansingh, for instance, says he became friendly with other unemployed executives he met through networking groups, and those relationships buoyed him during difficult times in his job search.

Stage Three: Identity Crisis

While a loss of routine and social contact can be tough on unemployed professionals, both are relatively easy to reconstruct. More troubling is the loss of identity that accompanies job loss and unemployment. New identities are much harder to recreate than new routines.

“In our society, we identify so closely with our jobs that when they’re taken away from us, some people don’t know who they are,” says Michael Thompson, a Chicago-based executive coach who holds a PhD in clinical psychology. “That can be very frightening and devastating and lead to depression.”

The professional identity crisis some people face after a layoff quickly affects their personal identities, too. When IT executives who were the sole providers for their families lose their jobs, they also lose their status inside their homes as the breadwinner. No longer being able to provide for the material wellbeing of their families deeply affects them: They say it makes them feel inadequate.

“I felt like I didn’t have anything to bring to my wife at the time,” says Alba, who went on to create the popular JibberJobber career management blog and software.

Thankless job searches reinforce feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. When hard-working, highly-skilled professionals search for months on end without landing a job and without much feedback from employers, they say they begin to doubt their experience and value.

“When an $8-an-hour HR intern doesn’t return your e-mails, you start to think: Was I a good programmer? Was I a good strategist? Was I a good operations manager?” Alba says. “I remember questioning everything, all the things I had brought to the table.”

Gia Fisher, who lost her director of IT job with a healthcare provider in August 2008 when her entire IT department was outsourced to India, says the lack of progress she’s made in her job search made her question everything about herself.

“You start to think, Is it because I’m female? Is it because I’m a minority female?,” she says. “At the end of the day, you realize there’s no rhyme or reason to it. A lot of my friends who are Caucasian males have been out of work for 18-, 24- or 36 months. That’s when you realize it’s not you. It’s just the way it is.”

It doesn’t help that employers and recruiters are largely unsympathetic to people who are out of work. Unemployed job seekers say that some recruiters and hiring managers view them as damaged goods.

“There are recruiters who only like to place people who are employed because they think people who are not employed are the dregs of society,” says Lisa Ekman, who left her job as vice president of IT at The Irvine Co. on March 31, 2009 to focus on her health after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

She notes that she’s talked to other unemployed executives who lament the fact that they worked so hard to get to where they were and now they’re treated without respect. Ekman says it can be demoralizing, but after battling breast cancer, she doesn’t let it get her down.

“I’ve been through hell and back,” she says, “and right now, I’m thankful to be alive.”

Stage Four: Getting Your Mojo Back

Moraetes, the information security executive, says he’s learned to ignore his family’s harping. Exercise lifts his mood when he gets down, and helping others makes him feel good about himself. Moraetes counsels other jobless professionals on the emotional and material realities of long-term unemployment. At the beginning of the year, he loaned his information security expertise to a small healthcare company in Haiti after the earthquake. Recently, he landed a contract job.

For most unemployed people, starting a new job is the psychological remedy for the trauma they’ve experienced. But a two-year study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that the physical and psychological effects of unemployment (e.g. depression and ill health) can linger with people for years, long after they’ve moved into a new job.

The long-term emotional effects of unemployment, however, aren’t all negative. Most of the executives interviewed for this story say their out-of-work experience, as bad as it can be, strengthened their character. Bonica believes he’s benefited in a number of ways.

“I know I’ll look back on this experience and see that I met some great people, learned a lot about my resilience and how I approach problems, and I sharpened my skills in new areas like social media, which I wouldn’t have had time to do before,” he says.

When Bonica does find a new job, he’s not going to forget what it’s like to be unemployed.

“If I’m ever in a position to hire, I’m going to hire people who are unemployed and really need it,” he says. “You feel for what people are going through. You see the toll it takes. You’re in this position now and someday you won’t be, but there are people who still will be. I’m not sure that feeling is going to leave me anytime soon.”

Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.