The Trauma of Unemployment

Sep 3, 2009 11:44am

An unusual new survey of unemployed Americans finds sobering results in advance of Labor Day: “A shaken, traumatized people” suffering “serious financial and psychological effects.”

With economists suggesting the recession’s ending, the Rutgers University survey provides a stark reminder of the damage done and, for many, the long road ahead. Three-quarters of the unemployed report stress in their daily lives. Two-thirds report being depressed, three-fifths feel helpless and more than half say they’re angry. Significant numbers report trouble sleeping, avoiding social situations and strained family relations. The report’s authors warn of a potential “mental health epidemic.”

Financially, almost all have cut back on spending; most have postponed a vacation or planned home repair and most report using money set aside for other purposes, such as retirement or education. More than half report borrowing money from family or friends. A third have increased their credit card debt. About a quarter have missed a mortgage, rent or credit card payment. A sixth have had to move.

And there are further risks ahead: Fifty-three percent of the unemployed lack health insurance.

The survey, by Rutgers’ John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, was done among 1,200 people in the labor force who are unemployed now or have been out of work in the last 12 months. Their world changed suddenly: Sixty percent had no advance notice of their layoff whatsoever, and eight in 10 got two weeks’ notice or less. Just 15 percent got any severance. A mere 2 percent were offered retraining.

Just a fifth have found new work, and given the dire job market just three in 10 of those still jobless think they’ll be working again within four months.

It’s a new experience for many: Fifty-two percent of the unemployed say it’s the first time they’ve been jobless in at least five years. They’re more educated and affluent than those commonly out of work. And three-quarters are thinking seriously about changing their field or career.

“The jobless have had to face the fact that their old jobs, incomes, and work identity are gone,” says Cliff Zukin, a prominent survey researcher and co-author of the study. “They are our neighbors, our former colleagues, and they are living in a world of hurt.”

That hurt’s underscored in quotes from some of the respondents. “The lack of income and loss of health benefits hurts greatly, but losing the ability to provide for my wife and myself is killing me emotionally,” said one. Another said, “I have been forced to sell personal property and am truly discouraged by the dim future I see ahead.” And from a third: “Being unemployed is frustrating, demeaning and, at this point, frightening.”

The report echoes some of the findings on economic stress we’ve reported previously, e.g., here; what’s unusual is its focus on the unemployed. It was conducted through a survey process in which respondents first are reached by telephone via random-sampling methods, then are given internet access to take surveys online. See topline results here.

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