Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Could Being Conscientious Make Unemployment Worse?

In my family, if you weren't working, it had better be because you were dead or at least unconscious in a ditch somewhere.

That's why when I started contemplating what it would be like to go without work for more than a year, I could hardly wrap my head around it. I once was unemployed for eight days, and I think I cried for six of them. I just felt like my whole identity had been taken away from me, and I felt so lost and worthless.

I've interviewed a lot of people in the last year who have been unemployed for a lot longer than eight days. How, I wondered, do they cope? Here's the story I did for Gannett/

Most job seekers are optimistic when they first land in the unemployment line. They believe they have valuable skills and enough contacts they’ll soon land on their feet. But as the days stretch into weeks – then into months – keeping that optimism alive almost becomes more difficult than finding work.

The numbers are daunting: It’s estimated that nearly 46 percent of the unemployed American workforce has been jobless for six months – the highest figure since the Labor Department started tracking such numbers in 1948. In the U.S., seven million people have been looking for jobs for 27 weeks or more, with the majority – 4.7 million – jobless for 12 months or more.

One of those long-term unemployed is Dustin Lewis, who lost his full-time job with Nike Inc. last April. Since then, it’s been a daily job to find a job.

“This has definitely been a gut-check,” says Lewis, 25, of Portland, Ore. “I try to look at this in a positive light, like the fact that I’ve sharpened my skills by writing and marketing myself online. But every once in a while, there is a day when I’m deflated emotionally.”

A new study from the University of Warwick called “The Dark Side of Conscientiousness” finds that such long-term unemployment may be even more difficult for individuals who are conscientious. The study says these people – who view achievement in life as critical – may find joblessness much more threatening.

One of the researchers, Christopher J. Boyce, says the four-year study of 9,570 individuals found that those who were conscientious had a much more difficult time as their jobless status stretched on. Specifically, those who had been without a job for three years were 120 percent more likely to have a drop in life satisfaction than others in the study.

“Not having a job in your life is quite detrimental,” Boyce says. “It can be a psychologically damaging event.”

He says that while conscientiousness is often thought of as a valuable trait, those who are unemployed and have such tendencies struggle to cope. For example, not having a job prevents them from achieving a key goal in their lives – wealth accumulation, he says.

“Initially, we were quite surprised by the findings. But among our discoveries was that conscientious individuals also may evaluate that their lack of employment is due to a lack of ability,” Boyce says.

Boyce says those taking long-term unemployment especially hard – such as the conscientious individuals in his study – should find extra support. He also urges people to use unemployment as a “chance to re-evaluate your life and find purpose.”

While Lewis was not part of Boyce’s study and says he wouldn’t necessarily call himself a conscientious person, he says he understands how hunting for work for months on end can impact all areas of your life.

That’s why he says that while he spends much of his day trying to find employment or an internship, he also takes time to volunteer for a literacy program at an elementary school.

“The volunteer work helps me a lot. It’s a nice break. It gets my mind off the job search, and it’s a way to contribute,” he says.

Such a strategy is one that Boyce recommends. He says that job seekers can benefit from finding something to keep them occupied during unemployment, whether it’s volunteering, networking or helping their family. “They need something where they can direct their skills,” he says.

Lewis says that in the beginning of his unemployment, armed with a severance package, he wasn’t overly concerned about finding work. Now that the severance money is gone, he tries to stay focused on finding a job. He lives with his mom since he’s without a paycheck, and says her moral support and professional advice are valuable.

While he has a college degree in business and marketing, he is expanding his job search into other areas, such as advertising.

“There are definitely days when I feel like I get a lot done; I’ll find a job resource or apply for a job,” he says. ‘Then, there are other days when I don’t feel like I’m doing as much. I just try to spend a majority of my day doing things that will advance my job search. I treat my day hours just as I would my full-time job. Looking for work is a full-time job.”

What are some job search tips for the long-term unemployed?



Rick Saia said...

Do something - anything - in which you can enhance a skill, or pick up a new one that you can add to your resume, whether you get paid or not.

A few years ago, I was laid off from my job as an editor. In the seven months before I landed my next job, I did some teaching, and I'm still teaching today. And the skills I learned there have helped me in my full-time work.

Anita said...

Even if you can't land a paid gig, volunteer work can help expand your skills and your network -- and may just expose you to something you enjoy doing, like teaching. Thanks for sharing your story.