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The Psychology of Unemployment 

Wednesday, Jan 16 2013

In these troubled times, employment, like life, could end at any time — and yet it's somehow worse with a job, because we have no evidence that the afterlife consists of a long night of drinking followed by weeks of wondering in sweatpants what to do next. The anxiety, the insecurity, the cliff's-edge thrill of the unknown: This existential brew is going through the heads of 7.9 percent of the American population (and 6.9 percent in San Francisco). Of those, some are the sweatpants variety, but some clean themselves up and get out there looking for the next job with a smile and a zest for interviews. What is their secret?

Turns out it may be as simple as liking their former employers. Jennifer Tosti-Kharas, an assistant professor at San Francisco State University's department of management, was curious about what's on the minds of the unemployed while they search for new jobs. She knew from previous research that employees who identify with their current employer — who think of their job as an extension of self — have a better sense of well-being at that job.

"Employees who identify with their employing organizations are more likely to view company successes as personal ones," she writes in her recently published study. You identify with your company when you refer to it as "we" instead of "they." So she wondered how that was affected when that employer let them go: "Are these attachments good or are they bad?"

Tosti-Kharas picked a good time to start her research. She conducted online surveys with both the employed and unemployed in June and December of 2008. "It was just really coincidental, truly, that the peak of the financial collapse happened at the midpoint of those two dates," she says. The surveys evaluated respondents on how much they identified with their employers as well as their sense of well-being. What she found seemed counterintuitive.

Those who identified strongly with their former employers felt more positive even when unemployed — the feeling of belonging helped them move on and, perhaps, succeed in finding a new gig. "My findings suggest that those who once identified with their former employer are more likely to get high-quality jobs in the future," she says.

While this sounds like the occupational version of Stockholm syndrome, Tosti-Kharas says it is a reflection of humans as social animals — when we feel like we belong, like we are part of something we care about, we feel better.

She compares it to the end of a romance, "sort of like you really love someone who dumps you," and sums up the resulting positivity with a familiar saw: "It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

Four years later, she's planning a follow-up study to see where these people landed — how a sense of well-being affects the sweatpants-to-suit-pants ratio.

About The Author

Brandon R. Reynolds


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