June 30, 2010
It's been nearly a year since Kevin Brett lost his job as a public-relations executive, the longest stretch of unemployment he's ever faced.
The only other major break in his 32-year career was a five-month jobless stint in 1993, but he describes this time as far more challenging. Things are starting to look up - since January he's added about 10 hours of work a week for a freelance client and he's interviewing for full-time jobs and weighing an academic opportunity - but there have been a few heartbreaks on the path to reemployment.
"I've been the first runner-up at least three times. I've come so close," he said, noting that he tells himself to persevere. "But it is disappointing when it's down to two candidates and then you get the phone call that you've always dreaded."
Brett knows he can't look for work eight hours a day, so he's also managed to go to the gym more often, read novels, learn new social-media skills and spend more time with his family when he's not job-hunting.
"I am probably in the best shape I've been since my college days and my stamina is great," said Brett, 55, a self-described "gym rat" who lives in Pleasanton, Calif. "It's kept my weight down and I feel great."
Repeated rejection and increased stress can be a health hazard among the long-term unemployed, who face special challenges in guarding their health as the sluggish recovery drones on. More than 6 million Americans have been out of work for at least six months, comprising a record 44 percent of the unemployed in March, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The national unemployment rate is 9.7 percent, just shy of a 27-year high.
Job seekers can't ward off every infirmity through sheer will power and discipline, but they can stack the deck in their favor by keeping a routine, staying socially active, pursuing hobbies and taking better care of themselves than they would if they were working and commuting, experts say.
"The key is spending some time doing what you like to do," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association in Washington. "You need to continue the job search, but you do need to spend some time for yourself as a way of better understanding and handling your own stress."
WHAT'S AT STAKE
Whether overall public health improves or worsens during recessions is the subject of some debate. Conflicting research shows people are less likely to indulge in some unhealthful habits if they're costly, but other health problems that can arise in tough times may offset those potential gains.
People who have been jobless for an extended period are vulnerable to medical and behavioral problems that stem in part from stress, Benjamin said. Excessive eating, anxiety, clinical depression and many forms of abuse tend to rise in hard times, he said.
"The mental-health issues, the stress and behavior issues and the lack of access to health care - all three of those things kick in," he said. "It can be a pretty serious situation, particularly for people who are long-term unemployed."
Losing access to health coverage and contact with health-care providers can exacerbate the problems, Benjamin said.
"Anyone who has existing health conditions (is) at risk of those worsening without appropriate medical care, and new things don't get picked up because some people don't have the funds to go to the doctor," he said.
Evidence supports the idea that losing a job can be bad for your health, but that doesn't mean illness is a foregone conclusion.
People who lost a job because of a business closure had a 54 percent higher chance of reporting fair or poor health shortly thereafter, and those who didn't have health problems were 83 percent more likely to acquire one after losing a job through no fault of their own, according to a study published in the May 2009 issue of the journal Demography. The study sampled about 16,000 people included in the U.S. Panel Study of Income Dynamics from 1999, 2001 and 2003.
"Suffering this kind of big shock to what we call socioeconomic status has a significant effect on health," said study author Kate Strully, assistant professor of sociology and epidemiology at the State University of New York at Albany.
The new health problems people developed were typically cardiovascular disease, arthritis and psychological conditions, she said.
"Those are the big three," Strully said. "The key unifying factor between physical conditions often times was inflammation. The inflammatory process tends to increase when people are under stress, which can affect things like heart disease but also certain types of arthritis."
WHAT TO DO
Assuming you have the basics of food and shelter covered, experts say there are some things you can do to improve your health and wellbeing while coping with an extended bout of joblessness. Among them:
Try not to take your situation personally. It helps if you can see being out of work as part of a larger phenomenon, said Diane Gehart, professor of marriage and family therapy at California State University- Northridge. "Where you get into trouble is thinking 'I'm a failure. I'll never get a job again. I've done something wrong,'" she said. "If you start to personalize it, you're more likely to get depressed, and if you get depressed you're more likely to be less effective in your job search."
Create a structured work day. Joseph Horak, a psychologist and marriage and family therapist in Grand Rapids, Mich., advises his out-of-work clients to get up at a regular time and go to a particular place to look for a job or learn new skills for part of the day. "They may either go to a desk or a coffee shop or a library and they work," he said. "That's going to help them feel better about themselves, a little more in control."
Find joy in doing something unrelated to the job search. Whether you like to run, read books, draw, do woodworking or volunteer at a local nonprofit, pursue a hobby while you have the time. You may miss your favorite activities when you eventually reenter the work force, said Brett, who sees more free time as an upside of his prolonged job hunt. "It's kind of like a break from the rat race."
Cultivate healthful habits and avoid destructive ones. "It may be a time to pay more attention to your nutrition," Benjamin said. "It's not a time to create additional stressors like going on a binge, whether it's smoking, eating or alcohol."
Get some exercise. Raising your heart rate also can raise your mood, said Horak, who practices what he preaches. "I work out almost every day. It's one of the interventions I recommend for my clients, even if it's just going for a walk."
Maintain your support network and invest in your treasured relationships. Surround yourself with family, friends or a trusted counselor. "Ultimately, for most people, that's where you find meaning and joy in life," Gehart said. Attending to loved ones also can help you expand your identity beyond your career, Horak said.
Practice gratitude. Write down three things you appreciate every day or send a letter to someone who's made a positive impact on you. Gehart said she's gone the daily journal route. "It sounds almost too ridiculously simple to be useful, but it's a very powerful exercise."
Watch for signs of depression and seek professional help if you have symptoms. Symptoms can include an increase or decrease in appetite or sleeping, talking about not wanting to live or feeling hopeless, withdrawing from activities that used to be enjoyable and inappropriate crying. People who become severely depressed need more than just a well-intentioned pep talk - they need to see a doctor or therapist immediately and may need medication, especially if they're at risk of harming themselves or others, Horak said. "People who have never been depressed have a hard time understanding that," he noted.
Don't be afraid to call a suicide hotline for help with an emotional crisis. Call 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-273-TALK at any time to talk to someone in your area.
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