I moved to New York for what many people in my life deemed a dream opportunity in the journalism world. I agreed. Within a matter of weeks in the summer of 2021, I packed up all my belongings and left the midwest to crash with a second cousin and her newlywed husband in their East Village apartment. I started my new gig and waited to secure my own place.
I look back at old journal entries describing the start of my new job as thrilling yet overwhelming, cutting edge yet uncertain. I was incredibly nervous about establishing myself in a new place, but looked forward to meeting the team as we embarked on what I thought would be years of working alongside one another. It was my first full-time role after college, and I felt lucky to get my foot in the door. I gave it my all.
Eight months later, my team and I were unexpectedly let go.
It’s been seven months since I was laid off in April, and four months since I started a new job, but I still fear for the next layoff. I’ve attributed my worry to the generalized anxiety I’ve dealt with as long as I can remember, which has always graciously taken the passenger seat in my mind. I suspect much of it is my own anxiety, but it’s also the nature of how we conflate identity and overall self-worth with work. And a job loss is—simply put—a massive life change.
Research shows that people who experience a layoff may face a higher risk for depression and anxiety and feel higher rates of low confidence and negative self-esteem. Feelings associated with layoffs include a loss of enjoyment, shame, and worthlessness. The rate of depression is about three times higher for unemployed young American adults compared to employed young adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“It is a very traumatic experience because it represents a significant sign of being devalued,” Dr. Darryl Rice, professor of management in the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Ohio, with a focus on behavioral ethics, diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace tells Fortune. “In the grand scheme of things, the value that you bring to the organization is not enough to warrant continued employment.”
These initial feelings may linger, many experts tell me, and manifest in a variety of ways even when you get a new job.
“Layoff victims learn through unpleasant experience that trust in employer loyalty may well be misguided and that optimism about job security may not be valid,” says Charlie Trevor, academic director of the Strategic Human Resource Management Center at Wisconsin University’s School of Business. “The psychological impact of a layoff seems to spill over into subsequent jobs. This yields anxiety about the future.”
That’s been true for me and Remina Nair, a 28-year-old living in London, who was laid off back in 2015. Even after further opportunities, she still felt nervous, noting how easy it felt to be laid off once.
“It kind of always lingered in the back of [my] mind,” says Nair, who writes about music and fashion. “Just say an editor didn’t like my writing, there’ll be a subconscious thing where I’m like, does that mean that they don’t want me? … Sometimes I get nervous if an email comes up, and then I’m kind of like, ‘am I gonna get fired?’”
In subsequent jobs, she overperformed and described herself as constantly in a state of “catastrophic thinking”—trying to do everything to prevent being laid off again. Nair ended up seeking therapy years later to grapple with these anxieties and reframe her experience.
In reality, layoffs often tend to happen for reasons outside of the hands of employees. I knew that to be true for me.
And I feel lucky to have been provided severance and to have found a new job eight weeks later that aligns with my interests and values. I feel most deeply for those on my team who moved across the country with their young children—enrolled them in a new school for this opportunity—and have had a more difficult time pivoting.
Yet, I still fear that last-minute urgent email will come again—summoning me into a room with my fellow colleagues as we learn that the higher powers cut our department and that our work will not see the light of day. I even joke with my editor now that sometimes her “wanna have a 10-minute catch up” Slack message makes my heart race.
While I’m no longer naive to think that it could never happen again, the constant fear is frustrating. For weeks after my layoff and even into my new job, I felt uneasiness, almost a paranoia that made me want to avoid getting fully settled into my role. What would happen to my mental health if this happened again?
Many experts say that a large part of how you feel in your post-layoff job relates back to how you received your layoff news. Whether you got adequate severance or career advancement tools and notice matters, says Connie Wanberg, a professor in the department of work and organizations at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Even in a new job, the way you felt compassion and fairness was given in your layoff can affect your view on employers as a whole.
Either way, it’s hard not to internalize a layoff.
For many of us who have been laid off, our increased stress and worry is because of a loss of trust, feeling like a contract dissipated overnight.
“This contract includes what people feel they owe the employer and what they feel the employer owes them,” says Trevor. “We tend to amend the contract based on experience. Something as traumatic as a layoff would typically be seen as a contract violation, forcing us to rethink the obligations of both employees and employers.”
When I got my own layoff news, I felt shocked, and then a bit lost, like something I cared so much for was taken from me before I could blink. I felt ashamed and embarrassed, like I had moved to New York, the supposed city of opportunity, and failed. I knew the layoff wasn’t my fault, but it was hard not to think it was. This, coupled with the financial and emotional stress of losing a job, can be more severe for parents and caregivers and those who may not have a strong support system.
And while I’m early on in my career, my type A personality lends itself to feeling a deeper connection between my work as a reflection of myself and my drive.
Stephen Bowlby from Colorado Springs agrees and deeply regrets “marrying his work.” He gave his job in television and film his all for the majority of his career and recalls many times choosing it before his personal life, including his marriage. He admits to believing he was on top, special, and irreplaceable in the workplace. He was let go.
The mental health impact of a layoff is compounded by the feelings of starting from square one in a new job and no longer having the same confidence.
“They might have worked there for a long time and really had a reputation and people knew that they were a strong contributor,” says Wanberg. “And then when you move into a new job, you have to prove yourself all over again.”
When Bowlby was let go, he experienced depression and later regret; at first for not learning other skills that, in his mind, could have prevented his layoff from happening; and later, for conflating his identity with his career.
He also took those feelings of self doubt into his future jobs.
“When is the other shoe going to drop? How long is this going to last? And oh my god, Am I going to get hit? … That feeling never ever left me,” says Bowlby. It wasn’t that he was performing any differently, he adds, but it was just a constant unpleasant voice in his head. “That sense of impending doom was with me from then on.”
Trevor’s research corroborates these fears. People were 56% more likely to quit any job after their first lay off—and 65% more likely to quit the first post-layoff job. Each added layoff over a career increased the chance of quitting a new job. Many have to take jobs that don’t mirror their skill sets in the same way or even a paycut, which can lead to feelings of distress and unhappiness.
“The evidence was quite strong that it is the psychological spillover from prior layoff,” says Trevor. “The layoff culture in American business might, ironically, begin to be seen as a problem for management, rather than simply as a strategy whose costs are born solely by layoff victims,” his paper reads.
I’m not sure where to go from here. If we work hard, we expect validation and positive feedback. In reality, working hard just isn’t enough to avoid being laid off, which can lead to feeling empty and even angry. Should you work hard and not expect a return? Or simply find other ways to feel fulfilled so if you lose your job, you don’t lose your life, too?
Solely doing the tasks you are paid to do and establishing firm boundaries may help—AKA the quiet quitting trend which focuses on not going above and beyond in an act of protecting mental health and sanity. Maybe we all need to take a beat after being laid off before being expected to hit the ground running again. In the end, we can’t control an organization’s decision to cut staff which might be the part many of us struggle with most. And maybe all I can do for now is highlight that the mental health impact is real.
Talking about how the layoff affected you (which I have done) can help break the stigma and embarrassment associated with not having a job.
I’ve also found that getting to know co-workers can help re-establish feelings of security.
In the end, Nair told me even though it took years, she ended up realizing her love for freelance work and probably wouldn’t have pivoted if it weren’t for her unexpected job loss. I’m simply happy to be writing, something my job loss ended up giving me the chance to find again. And I can only hope others see a layoff as no fault of their own.
But will I always fear the daunting email? Probably.