Home All I Get to Work: Reframing Unemployment in Tough Times

I Get to Work: Reframing Unemployment in Tough Times

written by Sherri Fisher 8 October 2010

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

How many times have you turned down an opportunity for fun with this response? “Sorry, but I have to work.”

“I have to work” can sound like “I have a requirement or a responsibility to work,” which may be true, but it also indicates that you have the opportunity to work. Lucky you! You get to work!

If you are unemployed and looking for a new job, the search process isn’t really much fun, even in a solid economy. In tough economic times it not only can be discouraging but also may set up pessimistic thinking patterns that can lead to future unhappiness. The good news is that Positive Psychology research can help you practice more optimistic thought patterns that help you deal resiliently with current reality.

Unemployment Line, Sculpture at FDR Memorial

Unemployment Line,
Sculpture at FDR Memorial

The Scarring and Scaring Hypotheses
In 2001, Andrew Clark and colleagues posed the scarring hypothesis, suggesting that past unemployment negatively impacts future well-being, despite what happens in a person’s future.
German researchers Andreas Knabe and Steffen Rätzel, however, have linked well-being following unemployment not to thoughts about the past but to the anticipation of negative future events— specifically, fear and anxiety about the specter of future unemployment. They cleverly call this the scaring hypothesis.

The Confirmation Bias and Learned Helplessness

The confirmation bias is our tendency to match up occurrences and our interpretations about them with our existing expectations, be they optimistic or pessimistic. Knabe and Rätzel claim that because of fear of future unemployment, even currently employed people will have lower life satisfaction if their employment is not secure and unemployment seems to loom in their futures. However, if people anticipate that desirable reemployment is likely, the expectation of future unemployment does not reduce subjective well-being. In other words, people that explain current or future unemployment as coming from causes that are temporary and within their control will be much less likely to be unhappy during the job search.

According to Seligman’s Learned Helplessness model, the learned tendency to perceive that one has no control over bad events can reduce the positive motivational beliefs and thoughts necessary for making more proactive choices—just the things that a job searcher needs.

Explanatory Styles

To counter Learned Helplessness and the associated negative explanatory style, a person needs to believe that the acquisition of a future job is not tied to problems that are

  • Personal (“It’s something wrong with me.”)
  • Permanent (“It’s never going away.”)
  • Pervasive (“It affects everything in my life.”)

Viewing the job search and acquisition process as out of one’s control is consistent with a negative explanatory style. Negative explanatory style is a learned, habitual way to explain causes of bad events. It predicts depression, poor physical health and mortality, and poor achievement. It is a risk factor for depression when bad events are encountered in the future. Moreover, pessimistic explanatory style leads to poor productivity and giving up when negative events (like losing one’s job) are experienced.

Negative explanatory styles can continue even when good events occur. People with negative explanatory styles tend to explain good events as temporary, limited, and unrelated to their own contributions. When a job offer is finally acquired, it may seem like a temporary rather than permanent good event, and because of its apparent random nature, the pessimist will be waiting for the next pink slip.

Avoid the Helplessness Trap

Surrounded by Thoughts

Surrounded by Thoughts

Seligman reminds us: “Stable or unstable, global or specific, …internal or external. The attribution chosen influences whether expectation or future helplessness will be chronic or acute, broad or narrow, and whether helplessness will lower self-esteem or not.” An undesirable side effect of expecting future failure is a decreased belief in personal competence which is then easily reinforced via the confirmation bias.

Here are three things you can do to become less scared, more optimistic, more resilient and happier while you work, either at a job or at getting one. Even if you do become unemployed again, you will need hope, optimism, and resilience to take effective action. Each item links to another PPND article that may give you more ideas to support future well-being. Versions of some of these articles appear in the PPND book on Resilience.

  1. Collect positive evidence and reframe reality. Example: Lots of people are currently employed, far more than are not. Even if you need to temporarily take a job which is not ideal, you can still work at something until things improve.
  2. Learn to dispute negative thoughts by coming up with positive true alternative ones that help you get a new perspective. Tune out and turn off the employment forecast and unemployment news. Focus on the experience and accomplishments that have worked for you in the past, not the temporary reality that you are currently unemployed.
  3. Remember that other people matter. Network like crazy. Let people help you. They’ll feel better and so will you. Be sure to offer expressions of gratitude to anyone who helps. And avoid nay-sayers, wet blankets and those who would have you ruminate about your bad fortune.



Clark, A., Georgellis, Y., & Sanfey, P. (1999). Scarring: The psychological impact of past unemployment. Studies in Economics 9903

Knabe, A & Rätzel, S. (2008). Scarring or scaring? The psychological impact of past unemployment and future unemployment risk. Economica, no. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0335.2009.00816.x.

Maymin, S. & Britton, K. (2009). Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves. Positive Psychology News.

Peterson, C., Maier, S. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Freeman.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

Great Depression courtesy of aprilandrandy
My Lucky Mug courtesy of “that one Asian”
Circle of thoughts courtesy of h.koppdelaney

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OZ 8 October 2010 - 1:30 pm

Sherri – I had the pleasure of attending a seminar by Todd Kashdan in Australia on Thursday. Paraphrasing he essentially said that Seligmans work on explanatory styles is so yesterday. He suggested mindfulness is the way of the future – not surprisingly I’d have to agree.

The interesting thing is mindfulness makes it easier to change your thinking

Welcome to the future

Miriam Akhtar 8 October 2010 - 2:50 pm

This is a great article and rings true, thanks Sherri. I will forward it to some friends currently facing redundancy. Do the researchers behind the ‘scaring hypothesis’ offer any of their own strategies on overcoming it?

A very timely read.


Sherri Fisher 8 October 2010 - 3:25 pm

Hi, Wayne-
It’s great that you appreciate Todd. He has a brilliant and incisive scientific mind and loves to stir things up. It would be interesting to have heard what he said. You are suggesting that he has thrown out 30+ years of research and its present successful applications. Do I hear the confirmation bias in your comment? 🙂

I reviewed Kirsten’s article (link in your comment). She says there is “mounting evidence for the effectiveness of engaging in mindfulness before introducing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques.” Do you think that people can teach themselves mindfulness or would they need a therapist?


Sherri Fisher 8 October 2010 - 3:43 pm

Hi, Miriam-
Good question! No, the researchers did not suggest any strategies. Many studies suggest directions for further research rather than applications of their findings. Glad you found this study timely…sorry, of course, for your friends’ redundancy.

Kathryn Britton 8 October 2010 - 4:34 pm


Last year, the Anita Borg Foundation invited me to write a piece for their members to help them deal with their fear of layoffs. It’s interesting to think about what you can do to prepare for possible adversity. For one thing, it puts some actions within your own control, even as you wait for the next shoe to drop.

I learned from Wayne, and opened with practicing ways to calm the body.

If you — or your friends fearing redundancy — are interested, you can find it here.


Jamie 8 October 2010 - 6:13 pm

Hi folks,
I’d be very surprised if Todd Kashdan is really advocating tossing 40+ years of Seligman’s research aside. Prior to attending our mental toughness and resilience programs every participant completes the SASQ. Invariably they comment that they have never ever seen their optimistic and pessimistic thinking habits and patterns unpacked with such clarity on those 3 dimensions Sherri refers to.

The process of then repacking those habits enables permanent changes for the good while retaining the flexibility to use both pessimistic and optimistic thinking as is required by the situation.

I don’t know of any mindfulness tool that unpacks those deeply embedded patterns and habits in this way.

I think that the people who attend our programs would say that the learning process has made them much more mindful and that the skills are very sticky as it is hard not to use them due to that mindfulness.

Warm regards

oz 9 October 2010 - 4:15 am

Jamie – I guess I’ll have to let todd answer that.

By the way – that’s the whole point of mindfulness – you don’t have to umpack it all – way to complex – and way to hard for the average person. Mindfulness is much easier.

And then there’s the research showing the efficacy of mindfulness compared to CBT

oz 9 October 2010 - 4:20 am

Sherri – yeah Todd does make Seligman look like a bit of a dinosaur.

Confirmation bias – don’t we all. I try to get around that by keeping up with the research.

Re learning mindfulness – technology makes it really easy

see http://www.i-i.com.au/resilience/positive.html

ignore the plug for the software – it’s only available to my coaching and workshop clients – not the general public

Dean Weller 9 October 2010 - 3:20 pm

I realy enjoyed the article and it’s something I will be sharing with my clients who are facing tough times in the job market.

The ability to be increasingly self-aware and therefore more mindful is helping many of the jobseekers I speak to put power and confidence back on their side of the desk.

With thanks

oz 9 October 2010 - 6:58 pm

Kathryn – absolutely agree with step 1. Without calming down its an uphill battle to do all the other things that might be useful ie those things in your article.

Meg 11 October 2010 - 11:58 am


This is a great article that rings true and current to me and some of the people close to me. I am a senior in college and the looming threat of finding a job is casting a large shadow over my peers and myself. These a great tips for me to keep in mind during the upcoming year.

One thing that I have noticed about people who have recently entered the work force is that they are sometimes put off and upset by the amount of work that they are expected to do. I have to assume that it is a tough transition from the flexible more relaxed schedule of college to the strict schedule of a new job. When a great deal of expectations and work load are put on a person new to a job in general I think it can be very difficult to adjust and to be thankful. An important thing to keep in mind, however, is that you should consider yourself LUCKY to have that job, to have people that count on you to get work done and to have a steady pay check. What advice would you give to someone who feels overwhelmed at work and wishes they could catch a break?


Sherri Fisher 11 October 2010 - 1:53 pm

Hi, Jamie-
I like the synergistic effect of meditation on the “unpacked” explanatory style. Most of my clients are more resistant to learning mindfulness meditation until they learn that they have thinking patterns that drive their behavior. As you point out, our patterns and habits are transparent to us unless pointed out.

Sherri Fisher 11 October 2010 - 2:13 pm

Hi, Meg,
There are several things to do when feeling overwhelmed at work. Here are some:
1) Remember that once the “honeymoon period” is over, a new job is work! Unlike college, it is not going to be over when graduation comes around and that 9-5 or whatever the schedule is is not going away–until retirement!! You can compare this to September of freshman year in your school days–everything was under control and this was going to be a great experience…until about the first week in October when suddenly the semester required real focus and work for years to come.
2) Learn to manage important things in your life like sleep hygiene and exercise, and party and socialize in ways that enhance your life rather than drain the life out of you.
3) Plan happiness-inducing events on scheduled days off. Take pictures, collect remembrances–whatever will make it possible to savor the time later. Get together with your college friends–you are all heading in the same direction–older–so find a way to share in your present and future, not just your past.
4) You will likely have 15 or so job changes in your life. Each one of those transitions will be just like getting that first job–new culture, responsibilities and personalities to learn, and dealing with the reality that you are paying your own bills and getting up again tomorrow morning for more of the same. Practice the appreciative approach; What is good about your current situation? If you are not living under a highway overpass in a cardboard box with all of your belongings there, too, say thank you 🙂
5) Practice gratitude. If you loved college, thank the people who made that time (and money) possible. Those days protected you from the “real world” of work for 4 years and gave you time to grow.

6) There is so much fun ahead of you, so don’t get bogged down in what makes you unhappy. 40% of your happiness is up to you. See this article for more on that:
Is Career Happiness Up to You?


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