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Being Out of Work Is Hard, Getting Back to Work Can Be Harder

After two years of unemployment, Rob Smith was sad and scared to return to work. You may be too. Although itís surprising to hear, psychologists and career experts say Smith is more the norm than the exception.

By Debra Donston-Miller
Job Search

After nearly two years of unemployment, Rob Smith finally got a job offer. It was with a mixture of joy, relief, sadness and fear that he accepted it.

One recent Sunday night he went to Facebook and updated his status. He wanted to inform friends and family who had followed his two years of unemployment that his ordeal was ending. He also shared some raw emotions.

"Anxious and excited about returning to a full-time job tomorrow for the first time in 23 months … YIKES!!!"

Excitement, joy and relief will be understandable to most of us. But anxiety, sadness and fear?

Yes, Smith, a Boston-area architect, was sad and scared — sad to leave a routine and some projects that had been his life for two years and scared that his technical skills had failed to keep up with advances in the industry.

Surprising as it sounds, Smith's combination of feelings is not uncommon, say career experts and mental health professionals. After a long period of involuntary unemployment, a person may be fearful that his skills have deteriorated to the point that he will not be able to function in a new position. He may worry so much about losing another job that he self-sabotages. Or he may grieve for a lifestyle he had developed while staying at home with family.

"From an emotional standpoint, your pace has been in the slow lane for a very long time," said Cognitive Behavioral Psychologist Debra Brown. "If you're in a job where you're suddenly put back in the fast lane, you are now challenged to get up to that pace as quickly as you can."

Settling In

Two years ago, Smith was working at a small, design-oriented firm. He had been at the job for about a year when the impact of the recession forced the company to let him go.

After giving up hope that he would be rehired, Smith started his search for a new job in earnest a few months later. He sent out resumes and leveraged a variety of job sites and other resources. But his outlook darkened after attending a job fair for architects. "The first year I went to a career fair that was overwhelmed with unemployed architects," he said. "They totally underestimated the number of people who were going to attend. There were lines outside the door, and I left very discouraged. I think at some point I kind of resigned myself to not finding a job. I felt a little hopeless."

Smith settled into his unemployment and decided he needed to do something that would make him feel positive. "I wanted to do some things that were related to architecture and my home, so I started getting into the home renovation stuff. I really got enjoyment out of it."

"Unemployment has its dark side,” said Laurence J. Stybel, co-founder of Stybel, Peabody & Associates Inc. and executive in residence at the Sawyer School of Business at Suffolk University in Boston. “But the positive sides of unemployment are the good habits you can develop — getting up when you feel like it, speaking with as few or as many people as you wish, being in control of your schedule, etc."

As his unemployment stretched on, Smith continued to submit resumes, but he became less and less motivated to do so as the economic and jobless news grew from bad to worse. And then it got better.

New job postings, and the end of unemployment benefits in sight, lit a fire under Smith. But instead of just starting off his routine where he had left off, he ramped up his job search a notch — or three. "During that last leg of unemployment, I was feeling like, ugh, I have to send out these resumes," he said. "But then once I got into looking at firms, I'd actually get very interested in it and spend six hours looking at things and writing very focused cover letters. It made me feel better about myself professionally. And that eventually led to three or four interviews, and eventually to the job I have now."

Stay Current

While he was excited and relieved about the offer, Smith began to feel anxious.

For one thing, he said, in the last two years, architectural firms have started using a building information management system called REVIT. Smith hadn't used the program in his last job, and he was worried that his technical skills were lacking.

"I think I did have a lot of anxieties about things like remembering code, the terminology, things like that," he said. "But it does come right back to you. I might have to do a little more research here and there or look at something a little further to get to the next level. I was very anxious about it before, and I feel good that I didn't lose as much of my mental faculties as I thought when it comes to architecture."

Psychologist Brown and other experts say that reading industry trade publications and taking classes during a prolonged period of unemployment will help job seekers stay current in their technical skills and the practices of their profession. This will help mitigate gaps in employees' work histories, letting potential employers see that they have made the effort to stay abreast, and will lead to an easier re-entry into the workforce once an offer is made. Volunteering, in your industry or within your area of expertise in another industry, is another way to ease the transition back into full-time employment.

While out of work, Smith, for example, obtained accreditation in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), an architecture certification growing in demand as home builders seek “green-building” designs. He also volunteered at the information desk at the Build Boston conference. Smith said the former added "a valued credential to my resume" and the latter the bonus of membership in the Boston Society of Architects and a first year as an associate member of the American Institute of Architects. Smith said he wouldn't have been able to afford the memberships on his own.

Diving In

Workforce transition requires care and planning much like the actual job search process, said Tony Deblauwe, founder of HR4Change, an information and services resource for individual and business productivity. "If you’ve been out of work for a long period of time, there are a few ways to ease back into the workforce effectively," he said. "First, don’t try to do everything. Like most new jobs, there is a breaking-in period for both you and the company — usually 90 days."

That's not to say that you should go into your new position with anything but your best foot forward, just that you should take it one step at a time.

"You want to develop a steady pace of solid starting performance, networking and understanding the new business," said Deblauwe. "The urge may be to dive right in and do everything at once because you are so happy to be working again, but it could backfire because you may miss something that hurts your future success."

It might also help to remember that work is "partially a building up of learned habits that are effortlessly unlearned once you retire or are unemployed…” said Stybel of Stybel, Peabody & Associates. “When the behaviors once again become habits, you won't think about it anymore. You will just do it."

Once Burned, Always Shy

While there are many things people can do to ease more gracefully back into a "9-to-5" existence, nothing can take away the pain that goes along with the punch in the stomach of unexpected unemployment. There is often that fear that "it" will happen again.

In fact, people who return to the workforce after a long stretch of unemployment also often feel what Brown called "anticipatory anxiety." Once you've had [an involuntary job loss] happen to you, you have this anticipatory anxiety that it might happen again, and that might take some time to shake." If left unchecked, this anxiety could lead to self-sabotage, she said.

Awareness can go a long way toward avoiding this type of behavior, say experts, as will acknowledgement of the difficulty that goes along with such a drastic change — no matter how welcome. "When you've been out of work that long," said Brown, "it's going to be hard to get back in."

Debra Donston-Miller covers work-life issues and difficult job-search situations for TheLadders.

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