After more than 20 years in the corporate world – at Vodafone, Virgin and Costa Coffee – Eleanor Tweddell found herself, at 40, unemployed for the first time. Struggling to process the loss of a job she loved while applying for those in which she had no interest, Tweddell went into a tailspin.
Asked in interviews why she wanted the role, “I wished I could say: ‘I don’t, I just need the money,’” Tweddell says. “That was all that was going through my head.” That was in December 2016. In 2020, with redundancies in the UK rising at the fastest rate since records began and the numbers set to peak at levels higher than during the 2008 financial crisis, many more people will find themselves in that desperately hard position.
Tweddell, who has been out of work three times in the past four years, and went on to set up an organisation to help people through redundancy, speaks from experience when she says it is possible to recover from redundancy – and even to thrive. Here is some advice from experts, and those recently made redundant, on how to cope with job loss.
Assume the brace position
If your employer is considering redundancy, it is a good idea to brush up on your rights. In the UK, these apply if you are legally classed as an employee (as opposed to a worker – check the government’s website if you are unsure) and have at least two years’ continuous service.
If more than 20 people are to be made redundant, your employer must consult staff and union representatives, as well as with everyone individually. “The first thing you should find out is the timeline,” says Faye Law, a senior adviser for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.
At this stage, do what you can to protect your peace of mind. This may be a sensible time to cut back on your spending. Martin Lewis’s Money Saving Expert website has resources that can help you to save on bills.
Don’t forget the bigger picture
If you are selected for redundancy, try to remember it is not personal. The Institute for Employment Studies has warned of once-in-a-generation job losses this year.
Those affected may be able to take a tiny sliver of comfort from the exceptional circumstances, suggests Christina Patterson, who wrote The Art of Not Falling Apart after she was made redundant from her journalism job in 2013. “This is not your fault – it’s really bad luck.”
Rachel Davies has come to regard her redundancy in July from her job in the finance industry as “collateral damage” from the pandemic. “Dealing with the shame and guilt head on is vital to picking yourself back up.”
If you believe you were unfairly selected for redundancy – for example, on the basis of discriminatory criteria such as age or sex – you may be able to appeal against the decision. Seek advice from a union representative or Acas (or, in Northern Ireland, the Labour Relations Agency).
Make the most of your notice period
Try to use it as time to gain skills, raise your profile or fill gaps in your CV. Especially if your notice period is months long, you may be able to arrange training, a short-term secondment or to shadow another role.
“Once people are working their notice period, there’s nothing to stop them asking: ‘Can I try this? Would you help me with this?’” says Law.
Your employer is also obliged to give you paid time off for job hunting – they may even pay for outplacement services. Many already offer counselling or financial advice through employment assistance programmes.
Take stock of your finances …
It is crucial to be clear-eyed about your financial position. Burying your head in the sand adds to the stress of redundancy, and increases the risk of spiralling debt.
“Look at any savings and redundancy payout, and all your financial commitments, and work out a budget that works for you, even just in the short term,” says Clare Seal, personal finance blogger and author of The Real Life Money Year.
You could also consider other income streams. After being made redundant, Patterson rented out her flat on Airbnb and stayed with friends. If you want to do that, check with your local authority, your household insurance and the conditions of your mortgage or tenancy and any other regulations.
Seal advises exploring what, if any, benefits you are entitled to – and applying for them early. “There’s a lot of shame around financial difficulty, but the fallout of this pandemic is not your fault.” If the numbers still don’t add up, Seal suggests speaking to your suppliers, any creditors, and landlord or mortgage providers to see if they can cut you some slack. In the UK, StepChange, Christians Against Poverty and the Money Advice Service can help with budgeting and debt management.
… then take stock
Although your impulse will be to throw yourself into job hunting, Tweddell argues that “clicking the apply button 100 times before you’ve had breakfast is just not helping”. In “panic mode” after her redundancy, she wasted time and money on jobs and courses in which she had no interest.
In her new book, Why Losing Your Job Could Be the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You, Tweddell stresses the importance of giving yourself at least one day to reflect. Ask yourself: what am I good at? What is important right now? And what do I really want to do in future?
Being clear about your immediate priorities and longer-term goals can help clarify the job search and focus your mind, she says. Thinking about what “line” to give when others ask about your redundancy can also minimise social anxiety.
Be strategic about the job search
At a time when one opening can attract 1,000 applications, it is easier than ever to get lost in the crowd. Tweddell’s advice is to submit fewer but more considered job applications, tailoring your cover letter and CV each time. Going the extra mile to show that you have researched the organisation and reflected on what you can offer will set you apart from “CV-spreaders”, she says.
As you search for a permanent position, put out feelers for temp, freelance, contract or consultancy work that you can start immediately. Don’t be shy about self-promoting on social media, or checking in with professional contacts, past employers or even your university’s alumni support team.
“All my initial freelance work came from former colleagues who I was connected to on LinkedIn and Facebook,” says Caroline Joynson, who was made redundant from her public relations job while on maternity leave in 2013.
While it came as a shock, it proved the push she needed to try self-employment. “I was worried about a lack of security, but that’s the same when you’re employed – you realise that once you’ve been made redundant.”
Accept – if not embrace – rejection
“Being rejected is just part of the process,” says Tweddell. While it is important not to give up hope, Patterson advocates low expectations as a self-preservation strategy. “Psychologically it is so much more helpful … because then everything better than that is a pleasant surprise.” She also suggests signing up for volunteering or online courses, if only to structure your day and occupy your mind.
Copywriter Jim Haryott limited his search to one hour a day. “It’s all too tempting to sit in front of LinkedIn all day, but it’s completely counterproductive.” With the important caveat that he was lucky to have a few months’ savings when he lost his job in 2012 (and again last year), Haryott’s advice is to at least try to enjoy the time off. “It’s easy to say in hindsight, but I wish I’d made more of being redundant.”
Take care of your health – mental, and physical
Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind, says redundancy will inevitably be accompanied by a range of emotions, such as shock, resentment, distress and anger. “Try to challenge unkind thoughts about yourself, and stop comparing yourself with others,” she says. “Some people find it helpful to boost their self-esteem by saying positive things to themselves, even if it feels strange at first.”
A daily “gratitude practice” has been shown to rewire the brain towards optimism, while taking a break from social media can help to alleviate self-comparison. You might find it helpful to throw yourself into a household project you have been putting off, or to get dressed up every now and then – experiment with what makes you feel better.
For Patterson, hard times call for simple pleasures – in her case, Kettle Chips, a glass of wine and two episodes of Schitt’s Creek each evening. “The joy it brings me on a daily basis is absolutely enormous.”
Though it may be trite to suggest exercise, sleep and nutrition, it works. Don’t underestimate the impact of alcohol on your mood, too.
If your mental health continues to deteriorate, seek help from your GP or Mind (in the UK), which offers phone and online support.
Connect with others – and yourself
The fallout from redundancy can go well beyond the financial, says Mamo. “For many of us, our work is an important part of our identity.” Evidence suggests that it may be especially challenging for men, perhaps because of stereotypes about “providing”.
Dave Anderson says he felt “totally hopeless” after he lost his role in corporate law. “The resultant anxiety was at times crippling. I found the support of family and friends to be the best means of survival.”
He credits his wife with encouraging him to confide in people who cared about him, “making myself a bit vulnerable … They helped me rebuild my self-confidence, offered advice and even did mock interviews. The kindness of others really saved me, and made a material change, too.”
If you are especially career-oriented, you may discover that you do not know yourself beyond your job. Tweddell says to pay attention to what she calls “oh moments” – as in, “Oh, I’ve missed being creative at work” or “Oh, I really like being able to take my daughter to school”.
At the least, these will teach you something about yourself, beyond your former job title; they may even lead to a new career.
Tweddell has been working with former cabin crew to help them identify what they loved about that role. One channelled the desire to help into being an ambulance driver; another set up a personal grooming business. People tend to underestimate the value of their skills, says Tweddell. “They think: ‘Who needs to know that? It’s obvious!’ No, it’s not.”
In the bigger picture, losing your job can precipitate a shift in priorities. Kimberley Bond, a journalist, says being made redundant during the pandemic has taught her to uncouple her sense of self-worth from her job. “There’s more to my identity than what I do for a living.”
For Patterson, losing the job she loved taught her that “there is no point in being a workaholic. We all know people who have been affected by this, many of us know people who have died – you actually do have to think in a life-and-death context. This is a case of sit it out: let us get through this thing, keep a roof over our head and pay the bills any way we legally can, and we can regroup and rebuild when it’s over.”
Patterson has experienced hardship beyond losing her job, having survived breast cancer (twice) and the sudden death of her sister. “I do know that the worst can happen.” But, she says, people tend to surprise themselves with their ability to recover from adversity.
Without “wanting to sound like an Instagram self-help guru”, Patterson says, “like anything else that is ghastly in life, redundancy is the start of a journey of discovery: what do you like? What’s important to you? When things are normal, where would you like to put your energy – and what can you do now?”
Why Losing Your Job Could Be The Best Thing That Ever Happened to You (£9.99, Penguin Business) by Eleanor Tweddell, and The Art of Not Falling Apart (£9.99, Atlantic Books) by Christina Patterson are both out now. The Real Life Money Journal (£14.99, Headline) by Clare Seal will be published on 17 December. To buy these books at a discounted price go to bookshop.theguardian.com. P&P charges may apply
• This article was amended on 15 December 2020. An earlier version incorrectly referred to “gender”, when sex is the specified protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.