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Joblessness takes a toll on the soul

The epidemic of layoffs across the country is breeding anxiety and damaging hopes. The pain is passed on to family members.

February 22, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

For more than 17 years, Yvonne Nance knew just who she was -- the helpful voice at the other end of the line when people called AT&T for directory assistance.

That ended in December, when AT&T Inc. informed the 47-year-old mother of four that she was among 12,000 workers being cut from the telecom giant's payroll.

Two months later, Nance is confused.

"I'm going to my 30th class reunion in July," the Los Angeles resident said. "What do I put on my bio? Unemployed? Homemaker? That I used to work at AT&T for 17 1/2 years?"

She paused to get her feelings under control.

"Right now, I don't feel so good about myself," Nance said. "I've always had a job. I've never been laid off from a job. Some days, I don't even want to get out of bed."

The statistics are alarming: Nearly 2 million people have lost their jobs in the last three months, almost 600,000 in January alone. The national unemployment rate has reached 7.6%. In California it's 9.3%.

But the numbers are only half the story.

The other half is what happens to people and families when a job disappears. The psychological and emotional toll can be devastating.

"Our culture is based on what people do and how much they make," said Sharon Tucker, an L.A. psychologist who says an increasing number of her clients are dealing with layoff-related issues. "For a lot of people, being laid off means your identity has been taken away."

Dorothea Braginsky, a psychology professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut who has spent decades studying how layoffs affect people, said the link between people's jobs and their sense of self-worth is established at an early age -- and reinforced throughout our lives.

"One of the first things we ask little children is what they want to be when they grow up," she said. "When we meet people at a party, one of the first things we ask is what they do. It really becomes an essential part of self-definition."

Beginning in the 1970s, Braginsky started following a group of 50 men who'd lost their jobs.

She found that the trauma of the experience could be long-lasting, for both the men and their loved ones.

"The men who found new jobs eventually recovered their self-esteem, but it never got back to the point of men who had not lost their jobs," Braginsky said.

At the same time, she saw cynicism and distrust rise among those who'd been laid off. These feelings affected relationships with spouses and were passed on to children.

That dynamic, Braginsky predicted, will play out again in the current downturn, resulting in a generation of young people who will approach jobs and relationships with a sense of wariness instilled early on.

We'll see the ramifications of this for many years, she said. "Things are going to be different for people after this, and it's not going to be good."

Northridge resident Dan Adams, 47, lost his job as an office-equipment salesman in September, after 26 years of work. He said the hardest part has been putting on a brave face for his 12-year-old daughter.

"You don't want to tell your kid that Dad's not going to work," Adams said. "You try to downplay it."

Rachelle J. Canter is a San Francisco psychologist and consultant who has advised a wide variety of companies on how to handle employment issues. Her clients have included American Express Co., AT&T, Bank of America Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and the University of California.

Losing a job, she said, "is the psychological equivalent of being hit by a car."

Canter advises people to give in to the vocational version of the grieving process. Give yourself time to come to terms with your new reality before reaching out to others for assistance.

"Networking is important," Canter said. "But you don't want to present yourself in the wrong way. People don't hire people who are desperate."

Try to shield your children from fear and anxiety as much as possible, especially younger ones who may still have Mommy or Daddy on a pedestal.

"They don't need to know all the gory details," Canter said. "They especially don't need to know that Daddy or Mommy is scared. Be careful about what you say -- less is more."

Ditto with your spouse. Canter said she's seen many couples pull together when times are tough.

But she's also seen anger and resentment take hold, tearing away at the fabric of a relationship.

After AT&T showed her the door, Nance said she wasn't sure how to break the news to her kids. "It's hard to explain to them that you're going to be cutting back," she said.

Fortunately, Nance's husband still has a job as a plumber for the L.A. Unified School District.

Nance said she was trying to find temp work, anything to help tide the family over until the economy improves. So far, it hasn't been easy.

"I want to be optimistic," she said. "But I'm a realist."

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David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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