Will I Still Have a Job? Living with Job Insecurity

How to Manage the Fear of Losing Your Job Without Losing Your Mind

If you are one of the millions of Americans who live in fear that you may lose your job, you are not alone.

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on our labor market. In the past few months millions of people have lost their jobs and unemployment has skyrocketed to unprecedented rates.

It can feel devastating to lose your job and workers who are still employed may feel grateful for having a job. One overlooked issue affecting the lives of many employed workers, however, is that although they currently have a job, they live in constant fear of losing their jobs.

What is Job Insecurity?

Psychologists use the term Job Insecurity or Job Uncertainty to refer to the experience of not knowing if the future of your job is certain or secure.

Job insecurity reflects all the thoughts and feelings you have when you do not know if you will lose your job at some point in the near future.

When your job future is not secure, you have to expend a lot of energy working hard each day, despite not knowing if your job will exist in the future.

Even before the coronavirus, changes in the work world in the past two decades resulted in workers experiencing more job insecurity. Gone were the days in which companies were loyal to employees and employees would repay that loyalty by working for that organization their entire career. Company reorganizations and mergers produced massive layoffs of full-time workers. Short-term work opportunities - contract positions, freelance work, temporary jobs, and gigs – became popular. While there are positive aspects of these types of positions, such as having some control over when and how much you work, these types of positions come with high job insecurity.

Job Uncertainty in the time of COVID-19

When the coronavirus hit the U.S., millions of workers immediately lost their jobs, especially in retail, restaurant, and hospitality industries. Hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs in the weeks that followed as companies scrambled to remain financially viable. Other workers did not lose their jobs outright, but were furloughed, took mandatory unpaid leave, had their hours reduced, or lived under a constant threat that their jobs may be on the chopping block.

Even as many businesses reopen, the uncertainty in the economy means that we have not seen the end of companies downsizing or reorganizing. Employees hear rumors that layoffs are coming and must engage in the psychologically impossible task of continuing to work hard at their jobs while wondering if their jobs are targeted for termination.

Effects of Living with Job Uncertainty

For most of us, living with uncertainty raises anxiety, and we feel better when we know what to expect. Living with the constant threat of losing that important job has devastating psychological and physical effects. We need our jobs to survive in the world, to make money, and provide food and shelter for our families.

As humans, when there is a threat in our environment, we are wired to put resources – physical and mental energy – into coping with the stressor. The longer the job uncertainty lingers, the more wear and tear it puts on our bodies and minds.

The psychological research on job uncertainty offers insights into the specific negative effects of job uncertainty on workers.

Individual Outcomes of Job Insecurity

The longer you live with job uncertainty, the more likely it is going to take a toll on your physical and psychological health. Workers living with job insecurity report feeling depressed and anxious. They can become emotionally and physically exhausted and feel like a failure, even though the situation is not their fault. It is common to experience more difficulties managing the stresses at work and the stresses in your home life. We also know that job insecurity is linked to poor physical health. Living with job insecurity over time can put you at higher risk for negative health outcomes such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes.

Figure depicting the psychological and physical effects of job insecurity
Individual Outcomes of Job Insecurity
Job Outcomes of Job Insecurity

Job insecurity also affects the way you feel about your job and how you interact with people at work. The strain of job uncertainty can make it more difficult to concentrate at work, and reduce your job motivation and satisfaction. Workers living with job insecurity report more negative feelings about their employers and supervisors. They often feel betrayed by the company and lose trust in the organization. Job insecurity puts you at a higher risk of experiencing job burnout. Job insecure workers are more likely to be actively looking for other jobs and making plans to leave the company to find more secure employment.

Figure depicturing the job outcomes of job insecurity
Job-Related Outcomes of Job Insecurity

Tips for Coping with Job Insecurity

Living in the time of COVID-19 means we are all living in a time of great stress and uncertainty in general, while also coping with job insecurity.

It is important to point out that feeling anxious and depressed is a normal reaction to the threatening situation of living with job uncertainty.

While nothing will magically make that stress go away, there are some strategies you can use to manage the stress of job uncertainty.

Name the Stress

Recognize the worries and stress you are experiencing as the effects of job insecurity, and not as emotional problems that are all in your head. While job insecurity can exacerbate depression and anxiety, feeling stressed about the uncertain future of your job is not a mental problem, but a problem with the work environment. It is normal to have a range of reactions such as feeling angry, scared, sad, and unmotivated.

Reduce Shame or Guilt

Job insecurity is not the worker’s fault. In our work-focused culture, it is easy for people to blame themselves for feeling stressed or to feel ashamed that they may lose their job. For employees who survived layoffs, it is common to feel survivor’s guilt. You can feel grateful that you still have a job, while also experiencing the stress of living in job insecurity.

Connect with Others

Share your stress of job insecurity with others in your life who will listen non-judgmentally. Living with job insecurity means you are carrying the extra burden of mentally preparing for a future event that may or may not happen, while also trying to work hard at your current job. Maintain strong relationships with the important people in your life.

Maintain a Good Work-Life Balance

Research findings clearly show that living with job uncertainty takes a toll on your physical and emotional health. It takes tremendous energy to maintain your motivation for your job while wondering if you will still have this job in the future. It is vital to take the time to take care of yourself physically and mentally.

Advocate for Change

If possible, advocate for changes in your work organization that reduce worker job insecurity. Ask for greater transparency about reorganization plans and decisions so workers can get accurate information about their work futures. Let your supervisor know how difficult it is to work in a state of uncertainty and how it influences how you feel about the company.

Job Search

Do not let the uncertainties in the job market stop you from job searching. This is a great time to update your resume, clarify your future career goals, and network with people you know in your industry. Looking for other positions can help you feel in control of your career path, even in these uncertain times.

Living with job insecurity is difficult at any time, but the COVID-19 situation has increased the stress of job insecurity. Feeling anxious and worried are normal reactions in times of stress and uncertainty.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by your anxious or depressed thoughts and having difficultly figuring out how to cope with job insecurity, consider working with a career counselor or a mental health counselor with training in career issues.

Sources

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (May 2020). The employment situation - April 2020.  U.S. Department of Labor. 

Elst, T. V., Notelaers, G, & Skogstad, A. (2018). The reciprocal relationship between job insecurity and depressive symptoms: A latent transition analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39, 1197-1218. doi: 10.1002/job.2250

Jiang, L., & Lavaysse, L. M. (2018). Cognitive and affective job insecurity: A meta-analysis and primary study. Journal of Management, 44(6), 2307-2342. doi: 110.4119727/0164392108637178737838553