Helping / Living With The Unemployed


If you or someone you know is apathetic about finding employment; really not caring one way or the other if work is found or not, the only way to get them moving is to identify that one thing. “That one thing?”, you ask. Yes, that one thing that makes wanting to find work more meaningful than not caring.

For a family member, friend or professional working with an unemployed individual, this is a tremendous challenge. You are also likely to find that the longer a person has been unemployed, the greater the effort will be to shift their thinking sufficiently to get them started.

Be forewarned, you can’t motivate someone else. Oh you can help them, support them and encourage them, but you cannot motivate someone else to want something they don’t want themselves. All you’ll get if they don’t want it bad enough is a token effort, and the first time they run into a barrier, they’ll pack it in and go back to what was comfortable; not bothering to look. Unfortunately, they may reason that they can be unemployed and struggling to find work or unemployed and taking it easy. For many, a simple choice.

The frustrating part for those around the unemployed person is failing to understand why they’ve become so disinterested and why they seemingly won’t put in the effort to find work. It’s highly likely that there’s been a major shift in their values; and the values they currently hold differ from those around them to such an extent they’ve become difficult to be around. There may be an increase in friction and tension, more arguments, less things to talk about, or the conversation about work might be one they insist is off the table.

There are far too many factors that could be in play in any individual case for me to accurately know what’s behind a person’s apathy, but here’s one possibility that may be going on. After having become recently unemployed, the person took some time to self-heal mentally. This is especially true after having been fired, let go, or quit a job they found problematic. At this point, they wanted to find work, and planned on doing so soon. When they felt ready, they began to look. That period of time to, ‘get ready’ may have been anything from a week to over a year – hard as that might be for someone else to understand.

As this person started to look for a job, they found it harder to get one than they had in the past. Perhaps because of technology and having to use computers to apply online, or having a poor resume, they kept getting nowhere on their applications. Interviews weren’t happening, or when they did, no job offers came. From the person’s point of view, they’ve left a job on bad terms, can’t get interviews, aren’t sure really how to compete against so many other people now applying for the same jobs, and their psychological state is becoming increasingly fragile.

Without being able to articulate what they are experiencing and how they really feel, they retreat rather than engage, and withdraw into themselves. Socializing becomes a huge outpouring of effort and only having so much energy to get through a day, they choose to stay in the relative comfort and safety of their home or a room in their home. This isolation skews their thinking; they become anxious beyond their safety zone, perhaps more irritable and easily frustrated. Whereas they used to be happy and good to be around, they are now a constant source of worry for others and an ever-present and growing concern.

How they see themselves has changed dramatically. Once productive and self-reliant, they had dignity and a healthy view of their ability to provide. Now they feel dependent, reliant on family or friends – and when that dependency becomes too hard to live with, they remove themselves and turn to the broader society at large to support them. It’s sad, it’s unfortunate and it’s not uncommon.

Of course they – or you, never used to feel or be this way. Once purposeful and hopeful, things have changed. It’s understandable why so many might self-medicate with alcohol, prescription or illegal drugs. With the ever-present thoughts of failure, disappointment and regret, anything that takes that thinking away, even for a short time is appealing.

Suddenly, just telling someone to get a job and expecting them to respond accordingly doesn’t sound at all realistic. Getting a job is transferring our own value of employment onto this other person who doesn’t share our value system as they might once have done. Yes, they genuinely want work perhaps, but they haven’t the energy, focus, willpower and motivation to make any real progress on their own. None, until that is, they find that one thing that they want more than they want the way things are. And no, you can’t find it for them.

Conversations are good; talk that draws someone out once the trust is established that allows them to go deeper and unload the ‘big’ stuff. Some are never going to work again, some may and others will. All three types will need support however, and the nature of the support they receive will vary depending on the individual.

Sure it’s challenging for family, friends and those who work with this population. Do what you can; know your limitations.

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