- With layoffs seemingly in every major industry, it’s natural to feel some layoff anxiety.
- Worrying about being laid off can leave you less productive and more prone to burnout.
- Using ‘defensive pessimism’ and investing in other areas of your life can help you feel empowered.
The Great Resignation has transitioned into “The Great Apprehension” for many employees. Layoff anxiety is high among workers.
Through my executive coaching, I’ve witnessed firsthand how apprehension among today’s workforce is affecting people’s performance and mental health.
Take my client Miguel, an accomplished VP of client experience who told me, “I feel as if I’m looking over my shoulder every day. I’m terrified that one morning I’ll check my email only to discover I’ve been let go.”
Or Nina, a content manager, who said, “My imposter syndrome is off-the-charts. I’m working longer hours each day just to prove my value and show that I’m worthy of remaining on the team.”
You’re not alone if you relate to Nina or Miguel’s stories. Seventy-eight percent of U.S. workers are concerned about losing their job, according to the staffing firm Insight Global. This is not only anxiety-producing, but it can also greatly decrease well-being. Job insecurity can negatively impact your focus and motivation. It also leads to mental health imbalances, like anxiety or depression.
Feeling helpless could lead you to become overwhelmed, and when this happens, you may hide or retreat. This isn’t the time to appear slack in your responsibilities, as it will bump you up the list of potential cuts.
The opposite could happen as well. I’ve seen people’s insecurities drive them to work themselves straight into the ground. This can unintentionally signal a lack of prioritization and an inability to manage oneself — two skills employers look for in workers they want to retain.
Worrying about being laid off to the point of overthinking or underperforming can be detrimental. Here’s how to proactively address your fears to avoid them from taking over.
What to do when layoff anxiety is consuming your thoughts
1. Sort out fact from fiction
Monitor your self-talk. The stories you tell yourself may not accurately reflect reality. When Nina began noticing her thoughts more closely, she noticed she was often jumping to conclusions — making a determination without having all the facts. For example, if Nina’s manager was slow to respond to a message, Nina felt on edge about where she stood with him. I encouraged Nina to question this assumption. Nina began to see that she was falling into confirmation bias. Because she feared being laid off, Nina falsely interpreted her boss’s behavior as evidence that she was on the outs.
Like Nina, it’s wise to explore what facts you have that point to the likelihood of a layoff and whether or not you’d be impacted.
Consider these factors:
- Has your manager asked you to cut costs?
- Does the company have a hiring freeze in place?
- Are sales on a slow and steady decline?
- Have you noticed a decrease in your workload?
- Are you not being included in key meetings?
If you said “no” to most of these questions, you probably don’t have to be worried.
But if you still find that you’re stuck in rumination, try mindful breathing and imagine releasing the unhelpful thoughts on your out-breath.
2. Be strategic with your efforts
If you confirm a layoff seems more likely, discreetly gather information and evaluate your role.
- Are my projects high-value?
- Is my work producing revenue?
- Am I working on initiatives that senior leadership considers high priority?
If not, talk to your boss about restructuring your workload to ensure your time is strategically spent. Build relationships with internal stakeholders and remain quietly alert to news of major departmental shifts and re-orgs.
Now is the time to re-engage your network. Reconnect with former co-workers and bosses. Join an industry group or trade association. You’ll feel calmer having supportive people in your corner.
And don’t get too wrapped up in thinking your future is one and the same as your company’s. Dedicate time to polishing your resume, portfolio, and LinkedIn profile. Even if layoffs don’t come, you’ll feel more at ease knowing that you can pivot as needed.
3. Try defensive pessimism
Make worry work to your benefit by taking your fear to its extreme.
- What would I do if I’m laid off?
- What are the next steps I would take?
- What obstacles will I face, and how would I handle them (finances, health care, etc.)?
Walk through your plan in detail. This may sound like a depressing exercise, but it can be very powerful.
Research shows that by preparing your response to worst-case scenarios, you can actually gain a sense of control — a strategy known as defensive pessimism. Contingency plans help you feel secure amid an otherwise uncertain situation.
4. Reflect on your resilience
I asked Miguel, who I mentioned earlier, to tell me about the three hardest things he ever overcame. He had to think for a moment but then shared: “Well, I was rejected from my first-choice university. I had a tough time landing a job because of my nonconformist background. And just a few years ago, I went through a divorce.”
“What did those experiences teach you?” I asked. Miguel replied, “I’m more resilient than I ever thought. I always come back stronger than before.” At that moment, Miguel saw clearly that he had the adaptability to re-establish himself after a layoff, too, if it came to that.
Reminding yourself of how you’ve conquered setbacks in the past is a well-proven resilience tool. One study showed that participants who reflected on how they had continued to grow despite life’s challenges showed increased levels of psychological well-being. So think about a time when you faced a setback, disappointment, or hard times. What allowed you to rise above? What opportunities presented themselves after?
5. Invest in your identity
Sure, work is a part of who you are, but it’s not your entire identity. Consider this study in the journal Frontiers of Psychology. Researchers found that people who reduce themselves down to a single attribute — their job — often feel dehumanized, like just another cog in the wheel. This creates higher levels of withdrawal, depression, and burnout.
Now, compare this with a concept from psychology known as self-complexity, which, simply put, reflects having a number of facets that make up your identity. The higher your self-complexity, the more resilient you allow yourself to be.
That’s why it’s critical to diversify your sense of self, just as you do with your finances. You can grow your self-complexity by investing in various areas of your life, like hobbies, family, education, or fitness. This way, when things at work aren’t stable, you don’t lose all of yourself.
Layoff anxiety can stop you in your tracks. But with mindful thinking and constructive action, you can ease your anxiety and set yourself up to respond to whatever might come your way in the future.
Melody Wilding is an executive coach whose clients include high-performing managers and leaders at places like Google, Facebook, and HP.