At R3 Continuum, where we’re dedicated to supporting healthy work environments, especially when facing crisis, we have spent a lot of time lately talking about the challenges of working during COVID-19. But the question many are facing right now: What about the challenges of not working?

The news flashed a rather scary statistic this morning: Nearly 15% of Americans are currently unemployed (and that number jumps to 22% when the underemployed are considered). One in five. While this was to be expected, it is nonetheless shocking to consider. That is the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, and may climb higher as time goes on.

As I consider what this means, one very famous political quote comes to mind. It comes from another time of economic downturn, the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was first said by Harry S. Truman, but resurrected by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.

“Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours”

That line resonates with many of us now, because it is not just people on the news who are unemployed, it is our friends, our family and maybe even us. The sheer numbers alone make that a reality. The effects of unemployment are hitting us all, directly or indirectly.

And the term “depression” is more appropriate than ever, as it encompasses not only the economic phenomenon but the mental state of the impacted individual. To be sure, many who are unemployed are being supported financially during this time, and that helps. Money is, after all, important. It’s why we work. But it’s really not the only important part of work.

Beyond a means to a financial end, what makes work important? Everything that comes along with it: the sense of meaning and productivity; the satisfaction of solving a problem; the ability to engage with colleagues; and how it fills our day with purpose. For many, work offers an ability to be seen as a productive member of society and have a professional identity.

We know this, in part, because of research on retirees, particularly early retirees who are financially well-off. Many initially struggle when work is removed from their lives, and it has nothing to do with money. A change in working status has an effect on our mental state when such a huge part of life goes away.

Thankfully for many, unemployment will be a temporary situation that resolves as COVID-19 restrictions ease and workplaces reopen. But for millions, the road to employment may take longer.

As communities, it’s important that we support one another – through recession and depression, by all definitions of the word.

How can you support others?

If you have a co-worker or employee who is currently not working, consider how you can be a true support for them, realizing that job loss means so much more than loss of income.

  • Stay in touch—Keeping connections is important, especially for those co-workers who are a big part of our daily lives. Conversations don’t even need to be about work.
  • Provide encouragement—Hope is really important. Provide encouragement and keep people hopeful that the situation is temporary, even if the conclusion date is unclear.
  • Share information about returning to work—particularly if you are a manager. If you know of plans to start to bring people back, this can provide at least some hope for an end.
  • Share opportunities for other work—If returning to work is not possible and the layoff is not temporary, then keep an eye on other employment opportunities. Consider even helping your colleague network – in your current or new industries.
  • Most importantly, empathize—Not sure how to support someone who is unemployed? Answer this question: What if it were me? If you were in that spot, what would you appreciate?

Just because the unemployment situation may be temporary, it does not make it less impactful. For us all to get through this together, we must do our part to support those who have lost work, remembering that they have lost much more than a paycheck.

Tyler is Associate Medical Director of R3 Continuum (R3c), a global leader in protecting and cultivating workplace wellbeing in a complex world. He has over 13 years of domestic and international experience in behavioral health workplace absence—including disability and worker’s compensation assessment, consultation with employers and insurers on complex claims, effective return to work strategies, program development and improvement, and training and supervision of industry professionals. He’s a sought-after speaker, writer and contributor in the field of workplace behavioral health. You can reach him at [email protected]

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