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The she-cession has begun: What to do if you're worried about getting laid off

Job insecurity is the new norm. Here’s how to deal with the emotional, financial and professional pressures if layoffs are on the table.
Image: Unemployement
Harry Varela, right, wears a protective mask as he talks with a woman requesting an unemployment form at a Miami-Dade County library in Miami on April 8, 2020.Lynne Sladky / AP

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The record-high unemployment rate has a lot of people working scared. A recent Gallup survey found that 25 percent of currently employed U.S. workers are bracing for layoffs in the next year. Working women are particularly at risk: The COVID-19 crisis has already wiped out a decade of job gains for women. In April, 55 percent of the jobs lost were held by women, even though we made up just 49 percent of the overall workforce, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The discrepancy isn’t because more women than men are employed in sectors slammed by the pandemic, either.

Across the hardest-hit businesses — retailers, restaurants, hospitality work, education — women lost their jobs at a higher rate than men working in the same fields. This first round of layoffs has resulted in an unemployment rate that’s 2 percent higher for women than it is for men.

RELATED: MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle: This is why America's record unemployment is impacting women the most

“There’s an ocean of fear everybody’s swimming in,” says Linda Matthew, an accredited financial counselor and owner of MoneyMindful Personal Finance Coaching. “One of the things that makes this so difficult is the not knowing.”

Here are some ways you can combat the uncertainty of layoffs. And if the pink slip never comes, you’ll feel better prepared for whatever life tosses your way.

Acknowledge the emotional trauma

This state of limbo — a “pre-layoff” period — can trigger emotions that are just as intense as losing your job. Your brain hasn’t yet gotten the message that nothing has actually happened yet, so there’s no closure — nothing yet to grieve.

This heightened, constant state of fear is exhausting. It also makes people operate in the extreme, says Maggie Craddock, founder and president of the executive coaching firm Workplace Relationships and author of the forthcoming “Lifeboat: Navigating Unexpected Career Change and Disruption.” It makes us freeze (procrastinate) and clouds our heads.

What’s worse: We’re not just dealing with an isolated situation. “Usually if someone gets laid off it’s only their problem,” Matthew says. “Now it’s all of us.” If you’re a two-income family and your partner is also worried about layoffs, that’s double the emotions in your household.

Matthew advises the clients she has been seeing to let their emotions percolate, to “breathe in the fear” and let the body process it. Otherwise it will linger. “It sounds very dramatic, but if you give it some time you’ll see that we can and do in fact survive with these emotions.”

Plug in with management

Knowledge is power — and these days it’s an essential nutrient for a nervous brain. With so many things up in the air, any information about your company’s health or future plans will help anchor you.

“If it’s possible, stay in discussions with your manager about where your company is going,” Mathew says. Understand that many companies are unable to make solid long-term plans. But even a week-by-week view of the state of affairs can be grounding.

Reinforce your financial safety net

The moves to make if you’re worried about a job layoff aren’t much different than standard non-pandemic financial advice: Spend less than you make, save for a rainy day, keep your skills up to date and make no rash financial decisions.

What’s different during a period of mass layoffs and economic uncertainty is that trussing up your finances will really help relieve layoff stress.

The most important money in your financial arsenal right now is your emergency fund. While you still have income coming in, build this short-term cash cushion to get you through if you lose your job. “It can be really comforting to look at your balance and know that you could cover your expenses for five months, for example,” Mathew says.

Reassess how much you really need to earn

Everyone’s spending looks different now than it did just a few months ago. Most people’s expenses (groceries withstanding) have dropped due to the coronavirus restrictions, making this the perfect time to get a realistic idea of how much money you really need to get by.

If you’re facing a layoff, it’s tempting to focus on how much money you’ll have to make if you lose your job. Here’s a different way to assess how you spend money: Think instead about the type of life you want to live, not just the things you want in your life. Craddock describes this as the difference between your “standard of living versus your standard of being.”

or most people, the most satisfying things in life — spending important moments with loved ones, getting a spare hour to read a book — cost very little. That should be a relief for anyone who fears a drop in income due to a layoff.

As you assess your spending, identify cuts you can make. Since “recreational spending” has gone down during the lockdown, you’ll probably find a lot of expenses you can easily trim. Making cuts before you go through a layoff will help you:

  1. Free up more money to sock away in savings: To make it easier, don’t think of spending cuts as a permanent state of denial, Mathew says. Reframe the new rules. Instead of “I can’t buy any more new clothes,” think of it as deferring a purchase (e.g. “In November I can buy new clothes”).
  2. Show you if you can live on less: Lowering your current cost of living also affects your future salary needs. And if you are laid off, then you can be confident that you’ll get by, even if a new job pays less than your old gig.

As you reassess your income needs, also consider how predictable your cash flow needs to be to feel safe: For example, Craddock says, “Some people could work on commission and be fine. Others need a regular paycheck.”

Take professional inventory

In a layoff situation your two most important assets are your skills and your network. “For people who are fearing a layoff and those who find themselves unexpectedly caught up in it, think of your established skills and your contacts,” Craddock says.

Be proactive and reach out to the people you know at other companies in your field. Compare notes, talk about what’s happening in the industry, schedule a Zoom coffee. Doing it while you’re employed makes it less awkward if you eventually need to send that “I just got the axe, have any leads on who is hiring?” note.

On the skills front, make sure that your online presence reflects your most recent work and accomplishments. If it doesn’t, spruce it up. We have tips to update your LinkedIn profile and add that dazzle that’ll set you apart from the herd of job hunters.

Work on a post-layoff job search plan

It might feel premature to plot your post-layoff path before you’ve lost your job. But, again, doing something productive is a good way to combat anxiety and regain a sense of control over your destiny.

To start, Craddock says to consider three potential paths to follow — each one relying on what you can do, who you know, or both. “The route you choose will depend on where you fall on your professional risk spectrum,” Craddock says:

-Use your Rolodex to find similar work at a different firm (taking your marketing skills and doing in-house marketing for a vendor you used at your previous job)

-Use your skills in a different way to work with an existing contact (e.g. switch from marketing to doing P.R. for a former client)

-Hit reset and pursue work that uses a skill you cultivated earlier in your career before you shifted gears.

The bottom line: Right now is a period of chaotic crisis. Layoffs are just one of the many things crowding our minds and keeping us up at night. It’s hard to plan for the unknown future, but there are things you can do to ease your anxiety about it and come out stronger on the other side.

“This is not the “new normal,” Craddock says. “Whatever ‘new normal’ emerges, we have an opportunity right now to prioritize what makes our lives worth living.”