SEARCHING for a job but having no luck getting hired can be demoralising.

While research shows that people experience an increased sense of well-being just after losing their jobs, that trend reverses if they’re still hunting after 10 to 12 weeks. On top of the obvious financial stress that comes with being unemployed or underemployed, these groups also suffer from worse physical health, with rates of depression rising among the unemployed the longer they go without finding work.

The solution to job-search depression isn’t as easy as hitting the pavement and sending out more CVs. Even strong candidates aren’t guaranteed success, creating “this constant uncertainty of not knowing when the job search will end”, said Michelle Maidenberg, a professor of cognitive behavioural therapy and human behaviour. Whether you’re suffering from job-search depression or happily employed, learning the coping mechanisms needed to deal with things like uncertainty and loss of control will always come in handy, she said.

“So much of who we are is wrapped up in work, but you are more than your job,” said Alison Doyle, a job search specialist. When people imagine job-search depression, they often attribute it to financial instability and frequent rejection, but it turns out that “identity is a much bigger piece of the puzzle than people had previously thought”, said Dawn Norris, an associate professor of sociology.

“In fact, many of the people in my study said it was the most important thing to them, even beyond financial problems,” she said. Those who listed financial concerns as their biggest source of stress often cited a perceived loss of identity a close second. Besides the loss of income and identity that can come with being out of work, there’s also the loss of day-to-day structure. Sending out emails while wearing sweatpants on the sofa might seem like a fantasy to some, but after a while, the loss of scheduled time can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and disconnection, Norris said.

The solution is to create structure for yourself inside the job hunt and out. Setting strict office hours can help keep the search from bleeding into every area of your life, with deadlines pushing you to work more efficiently. Simple rules, like a “No LinkedIn after 6pm” policy or a mandatory lunch hour, will give you the space to focus on other interests and relationships and recharge mentally. The stress of a job search can also make people feel as if they don’t deserve down time, but working overtime and pushing to the point of burnout will only worsen feelings of isolation and negativity.

Doyle said avoiding the temptation to set overambitious goals is especially important since failing to accomplish them will affect your well-being negatively and can even slow your overall progress. While it might feel hard to appreciate smaller successes, especially if they seem mundane or aren’t directly connected to the job hunt, the power of small wins means these moments can have a major impact on our mental and emotional health.

The stress of the job hunt can make it easy to miss out on a benefit of unemployment: more free time. The solution: “Look at the time in a way as a gift,” said Doyle, who recommended volunteering or taking free online classes. This can also be an opportunity to explore hobbies that you were too busy to nurture and probably won’t have time for once you land a job, Maidenberg said. Trying out new things and discovering other talents and interests can help us strengthen our identities and enjoy new sources of fulfilment.

If you’re interested in pursuing activities that relate to your professional skills, keeping your CV up to date isn’t the only benefit, Norris said. “Depending on what aspect of your identity is threatened, finding something to do that’s similar enough”. For example, a former manager could coach children’s sports and a laid-off emergency rescue worker might take a public safety course.

It can help reinforce the feeling that you are still the same person you were before, she said. One of the best ways to take a mental break from the job search and to reaffirm the parts of your identity that don’t have anything to do with your career, is to spend time with family and friends, Maidenberg said. It is also a good way to alleviate the isolation that many job seekers face.

Putting yourself out there isn’t always easy, especially given that there’s “definitely a stigma” around unemployment, she said. Research shows that the long unemployed spend less time with family and friends.

If you’re finding it hard to socialise, start small, Norris said. Online communities and support groups are good places to start, as are clubs and networking events in your area. If you’re having a hard time prioritising your health during your job search, go one step further and ask a loved one to act as your accountability partner.

If people ask what you do for a living? “It’s fine to say, ‘I’m looking for my next opportunity’,” Doyle said. Most importantly, she said: “Don’t feel bad that you’re unemployed, even if it’s your fault. It can happen to the best of us. You are not alone.”

This article first appeared in the New York Times

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