RAJ PERSAUD CONSULTANT PSYCHIATRIST, EMERITUS GRESHAM PROFESSOR FOR PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF PSYCHIATRY
It’s well known that unemployment is one of the most severely negative life experiences, so no surprise then that a plethora of scientific psychological research finds that the unemployed suffer much worse mental health than those with jobs. The jobless don’t just score lower on happiness, they are much more likely to suffer from clinical depression, abuse substances like alcohol, suffer from serious mental disorders requiring hospital admission, and even attempt suicide.
So far so gloomy.
Jobs play a fundamental role in our sense of well-being not just in terms of financial remuneration, but also in giving us goals, a collegiate community we can connect with, and making us feel we are needed. It makes sense that to lose a job means losing much more than just a pay packet – though that is bad enough. Indeed some psychologists now argue that the key reason losing a job makes us feel so bad is much less to do with the change in economic circumstances forced upon us and much more to do with the dramatic loss in psychological resources that jobs represent.
Given all this common sense, it may come as a shock that psychologists are increasingly interested in a dramatically different idea about the link between low mood and unemployment.
The new thinking is that while losing a job almost certainly causes low mood, it may also be that depression contributes to being jobless. If it turns out to be true then this has profound implications for how those searching for work should consider approaching the task. It means that we may have to pay more attention to our mental state, our self-esteem and our mood; working on improving these appears to result in a direct way on refining our job search strategies and result in dramatically different prospects.
This idea is termed the ‘Reverse Causation’ Hypothesis and centers on the notion that while most of us believe that unemployment lowers our mood, it could also be the other way round – low mood makes you more likely to end up unemployed and remain jobless for longer.
Obviously in times such as these, with a worldwide economic downturn, many millions around the world are going to be made unemployed for reasons that have nothing to do with their personal psychology. However once within that pool of unemployed – this new idea is suggesting that what determines who gets work soonest, or at all, has a lot to do with their mood.
Psychologists Craig Crossley and Jeffrey Stanton at Bowling Green University in Syracuse USA recently published a fascinating study in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour which involved measuring mood in a large sample of young people about to leave University and enter the job market, and then gauging how well they had done in finding work several months later.
The startling result was that suffering from lower mood, compared to fellow competitors in the job market, produced a hugely significant impact on how successful these graduates were in finding work.
Crossley and Stanton found lower mood had this dramatic impact on job search success through several mechanisms. Those who were happier in disposition tended to experience more interview success, search for jobs more effectively and intensely.
Crossley and Stanton point out that being unemployed and looking for work is a hugely demanding and stressful time, so it follows that not feeling so good mood wise, might become a major determinant in how well job seekers perform.
Crossley and Stanton contend that searching for jobs occurs usually in a background of having many other demanding responsibilities to fulfill, like family duties. These indeed are likely to get worse, as, for example, you are now unable to pay for the assistance you may have had with child care before. You may have to change your accommodation as you down size.
So looking for work has to compete with many other burdens, which may have now got worse. It is no wonder then that feeling low may have a massive impact on performance in seeking employment. It is already a demanding task. More challenging than those luxuriating in work ever imagine.
Given all this stress, job hunting performance is likely to deteriorate if you are generally feeling disheartened. In your depressed state you may understandably decide to prioritise other parts of your life, like doing the housework and looking after others. This helps avoid the self-esteem sapping challenge of confronting your employment status, which looking for a job inevitably does. This is another explanation of why lower mood leads to less job finding success. Depression leads to longer term unemployment as well as the other way round.
We know that one key aspect of searching for work is networking – this means using contacts to assist. But this also inevitably requires that you own up to needing work – you have to be vulnerable to others. If you are used to being in work and deriving high status from this, then networking becomes morale depleting, because you now have to admit to needing help and being in parlous times. Previous research confirms that one reason those who suffer from lower mood aren’t as successful in finding work as those who are more cheerful is that networking gets neglected, or is done less ardently or effectively.
In their paper entitled ‘Negative affect and job search: Further
examination of the reverse causation hypothesis’ Crossley and Stanton go on to argue that its not just that those suffering from low mood get less interviews because of poorer networking and job search intensity, they also probably perform less well, even when they finally secure an interview.
Their depression probably contributes to worse impression management. They may even do this inadvertently. For example because they feel low they are likely to suffer from less self-confidence and therefore underplay their abilities. We already know that those who are less happy are also less likely to smile and demonstrate self-confidence in interviews. All these attributes, which are really just signs of being a bit low, are frequently misinterpreted by employers; the candidate is perceived unfairly as less competent and therefore hirable.
The vicious cycle that then gets set in place is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the depressed are pessimistic about their chances of getting a job, but that very gloomy outlook then contributes to their poorer employment outcomes.
Depression leads to self-doubt and this is the last thing you need when trying to find work or when presenting yourself to a prospective employer. Depression also naturally lowers motivation meaning that you don’t try as hard when in difficult circumstances.
By these various and many mechanisms Crossley and Stanton suggest negative mood contributes to higher chances of being less successful in finding work. So intriguingly they are signifying that when researchers find high rates of low mood amongst those not in work, it’s not just that the jobless state is producing the negative emotions. It’s also very possible that the depression is also directly contributing to remaining out of work.
Of course there are many reasons why many become and stay unemployed – many of which are beyond the control of job seekers – particularly in the face of a global financial catastrophe.
However it is also possible that amongst a group of people looking for work and so competing with each other, it seems that one hugely significant psychological factor which now predicts future job search success, and which had been neglected before by career specialists and vocational experts, is your mood.
If this is the case then how can you improve your chances of finding work using this latest research?
It would appear that one key implication is to become more aware of your mental state and to focus not just on looking for work but in boosting your mood as part of your job search strategy.
TOP TIPS IN HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR MOOD TO HELP IMPROVE YOUR CHANCES OF FINDING WORK
(1) Monitor your mood – take stock of links between your mood and job search intensity – when you feel better do your work harder at finding work? If so timetable job search activity for those times in the week and day when you appear to be at your best emotionally.
(2) Manage your mood – consider the possibility that your mood is so low that you need to manage it more forcefully. Consider talking to your GP. There is now much more psychological help available than before. Anti-depressants are also worth considering if you have experienced sustained low mood for longer than two weeks continuously and are also suffering from loss of appetite, loss of weight and trouble sleeping.
(3) Distract yourself – use distractions effectively – if taking your mind off your predicament helps then time table distraction time into your week – like pursuing a favourite hobby. Often this seems trivial but distraction – as long as its not too long lasting is a powerful mood elevator.
(4) Verbalise – talking about how you are feeling has been shown to help – don’t bottle up your frustrations and sense of inadequacy – sharing these often is surprisingly cathartic.
(5) Commune – find others who are looking for work and share with them your feelings about your predicament – a sense of solidarity and realising you are not alone in the set backs helps you not take everything too personally.
Journal of Vocational Behavior, Volume 66, Issue 3, Pages 549-560
Craig D. Crossley, Jeffrey M. Stanton
Dr Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist who has worked at numerous prestigious institutions in psychiatry including The Bethlem Royal and Maudsley NHS Hospitals Trust in London and the Institute of Psychiatry plus the Institute of Neurology, University of London as well as Johns Hopkins Hospital in the USA, which are the leading teaching, research and clinical institutions in psychiatry in Europe and the USA.
Unusually for a psychiatrist he also holds a degree in psychology that he obtained with First Class Honours, and in addition he has been awarded over 8 degrees and diplomas including a Masters in Statistics. He has been recognised for the innovative nature of his research by the receipt of numerous academic awards and prizes including the prestigious Royal College of Psychiatrists Research Medal and Prize and The Maudsley Hospital’s own Denis Hill Prize plus the exclusive medical award, the Osler Medal. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently awarded him the Morris Markowe Prize for his Public Engagement work and elected him a Fellow of the College – the highest honour it can bestow on a member.
In 2004 he has been appointed Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry – Gresham College was founded in the 16th Century and the venerated Royal Society developed from it. He has extremely unusually been appointed for a fourth consecutive term.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has recently elected Raj Persaud to be the Editor of its first book aimed at educating the public on psychology and psychiatry entitled ‘The Mind: A Users Guide’ published in 2007, consisting of over 50 chapters from distinguished members of the profession and which reached the top ten best-seller list.
His best-selling book ‘Staying Sane: How to make your mind work for you’ published by Bantam press, remains the only serious scientific guide to preventing mental illness. His other books, include ‘Simply Irresistible – The Psychology of Seduction’ and ‘The Motivated Mind – How to get what your want’.
He broadcasts widely for TV programmes like Horizon, Tomorrow’s World, Newsnight and BBC Question Time. He has presented All in the Mind on BBC Radio 4 for which he recently won a prestigious Mental Health Media Award. Besides featuring in several of their flagship programmes like File on Four, The World Tonight and The Healers, he has himself presented several special Radio 4 series including The Psychology of Fame, Measuring the Mind and The Negotiators. He also has presented a regular series on BBC Worldservice Radio called ‘Travels of the Mind’ where he draws attention to mental health issues all around the world, from remote Kenya, Siberia, India to Belgium.