Coping Well with Unemployment

By: Robert J. Fetsch
Extension Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies (reviewed 6/08)

In recent years a growing number of Americans have experienced job loss due to recessions, downsizing, and business restructuring bent on financial survival. Job loss and financial hardship rank among the more severe stressors that people encounter.

Research since the 1930s reveals that unemployment has major effects on individuals’ and families’ emotional and physical health. Researchers have found strong relationships between unemployment rates and increased mental hospital admissions, suicide, homicide, total mortality, and cardiovascular-renal disease mortality (Brenner, 1973, 1976, 1977). Unemployment also contributes to greater depression and lower self-esteem (Waters & Moore, 2001) and to family instability, decreased family relations, and family violence (Furstenberg, 1974; Hanisch, 1999; Voydanoff, 1978).

Who copes well with unemployment? From a mental health and well-being viewpoint, unemployment is similar to other transitions that people experience, like divorce, death of a child, loss of the family farm, or acquiring a disability. All of these transitions often lead to high levels of stress both for the individuals involved and for their families and communities.

Lessons emerge from those who cope well with unemployment. Researchers have found that most adults at first experience high levels of stress or depression. Those who create calming spaces in their lives to problem solve cope well. They ask themselves: “When I was in a similar tough transition before, what did I do well?” I looked in the paper for jobs that might match my talents, skills, and experience. I thought about new directions I might explore. I drew upon our savings and purchased only what was most important. I explained to our children: “We’re a strong family. We’re in a tough spot for a while, but together we’ll make it through this too.” We held a family meeting. We brainstormed ways all of us could save money. We paid the most important bills. We asked others for more time to pay. We made lists of things we could do without to help our family get by on less. I updated my resume. As a couple we communicated openly and pulled together as a team to keep up my confidence, especially when I started to feel depressed. Every day I spent at least two hours actively pursuing new jobs. Recalling a successful transition from one’s past gives hope and often provides ideas how to cope with the current crisis.

One of the most important characteristics of resilient families who cope well with unemployment is the meaning they attach to the unemployment. When individuals and families see unemployment as manageable, it is less stressful for them (Angell, 1936; Cavan, 1959; Leana, Feldman, & Tan, 1998; Powell & Driscoll, 1973). The more positive the meaning, the better people adapt to the change.

One woman who was laid off after 20 years of working for a company said: “At first I was mad and sad and scared. But after awhile I realized that the day I got laid off was the best day of my life! Why? Because now I was free to do what I always wanted to do—start a craft store. For three years now I’ve been having so much more fun than I had in my old job. I needed the push of a layoff to get started.”

A positive attitude and  new ideas led to a successful job transition. Additional suggestions for maintaining mental health during unemployment are:

  • Allow yourself to grieve, feel anger, be depressed or anxious, and learn from your emotions (Cavanaugh, 1994; Quick, Fetsch, & Rupured, 2006).
  • Explain to young children in ways that they can understand that Mom or Dad is not going to work at the same place anymore. Remember that young children are egocentric, so they often feel responsible if they do not understand the basis for a problem (Levine, 1990). Tell them directly it is not their fault that you are unemployed (Voydanoff, 1983).
  • Tell them: “We’re a strong family. We can bounce back from this setback.” Show them with your positive attitude and actions what resilient adults do to take good care of themselves and their families (Silliman, 2000).
  • Especially with young children, maintain consistent daily and weekly family routines to provide structure and stability. If you regularly go hiking on Saturday, strive to continue the routine (Unemployment-A Guide, 2002).
  • Take steps that promote your and your family’s adaptability and cohesion. As a couple, foster an egalitarian relationship based on love and respect (Jones, 1990).
  • Draw upon your savings, home ownership, and budget. Consider moving to less costly living accommodations or to moving in with friends or relatives.
  • Seek unemployment insurance. Unemployment benefits can provide a crucial buffer for households after job loss (Sales, 1995).
  • Explore options for adolescents and adult family members to work and supplement family income (Sales, 1995; Voydanoff, 1983).
  • Seek emotional support from friends, relatives, and neighbors, which can mediate the negative effects of unemployment on individual mental and physical health (Cobb & Kasl, 1977; Gore, 1977, 1978; Kasl & Cobb, 1979; Voydanoff, 1983; Werner, 1990).
  • Experiment with viewing unemployment as a challenge or growth experience (Leana, Feldman, & Tan, 1998; Voydanoff, 1983).
  • Assess your personal strengths, skills, values, life themes and purpose. New directions will emerge (Coping with Unemployment, 2002).
  • Seek counseling for yourself and your family, especially when signs of depression and suicidal thinking emerge.
  • Keep flexible in your parenting style. Your children still need your nurturance (Dew, Penkower, & Bromet, 1991).
  • Problem solve and communicate, especially in regular family meetings (Fetsch & Jacobson, 2002). Solution oriented coping moderates depression and increases self-esteem (Waters & Moore, 2001).
  • Use some of your new free time to read more about those who cope well with unemployment (Amundson & Borgen, 1987; Bridges, 1980; Fetsch, 2005; Hanisch, 1999; Job Loss Stages, 2002; Quick, Fetsch, & Rupured, 2006; Youngblood, 2002).


  • Amundson, N. E., & Borgen, W. A. (1987). Coping with unemployment: What helps and what hinders. Journal of Employment Counseling, 24 , 97-106.
  • Angell, R. C. (1936). The family encounters the depression. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Brenner, M. H. (1973). Mental illness and the economy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Brenner, M. H. (1976). Estimating the social costs of national economic policy. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
  • Brenner, M. H. (1977). Personal stability and economic security. Social Policy, 8, 2-4.
  • Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions: Making sense of life's changes. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Cavan, R. S. (1959). Unemployment-crisis of the common man. Marriage and Family Living, 21, 139-146.
  • Cavanaugh, C. E. (1994). Beating the unemployment blues. American Journal of Nursing, 94(4), 66-70).
  • Cobb, S., & Kasl, S. (1977). Termination: The consequences of job loss. Cincinnati: NIOSH.
  • Coping with Unemployment. (2002). Canadian Mental Health Association Newfoundland and Labrador Division . Retrieved January 15, 2002 from
  • Dew, M. A., Penkower, L., & Bromet, E. J. (1991). Effects of unemployment on mental health in the contemporary family. Behavior Modification, 15(4), 501-544.
  • Fetsch, R. J. (2002). Transitions and changes: Who copes well (Fact Sheet no. 10.215). Ft. Collins: Colorado State University Extension.
  • Fetsch, R. J., & Jacobson, B. (2001). Manage anger through family meetings (Fact Sheet no. 10.249). Ft. Collins: Colorado State University Extension. Available from
  • Furstenberg, F. F., Jr. (1974). Work experience and family life. In J. O'Toole (Ed.), Work and the quality of life. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Gore, S. (1977, August). Social supports and unemployment stress. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco, CA.
  • Gore, W. (1978). The effect of social support in moderating the health consequences of unemployment. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 19, 157-165.
  • Hanisch, K. A. (1999). Job loss and unemployment research from 1994 to 1998: A review of and recommendations for research and intervention. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 55, 188-220.
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  • Jones, L. (1990). Unemployment and child abuse. Family in Society, 71(10), 579-588.
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  • Powell, D. H., & Driscoll, P. F. (1973). Middle-class professionals face unemployment. Society, 10, 18-26.
  • Quick, S., Fetsch, R. J., & Rupured, M. (2002). Transitions and changes: Practical strategies for making new beginnings (Fact Sheet no. 10.214). Ft. Collins: Colorado State University Extension.
  • Sales, E. (1995). Surviving unemployment: Economic resources and job loss duration in blue-collar households. Social Work, 40(4), 483-494.
  • Silliman, B. (2000). Raising optimistic kids (B-1093). Laramie: University of Wyoming Extension.
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  • Voydanoff, P. (1978). Unemployment and the family. In J. Sale (Ed.), Readings. Pasadena: The National Consortium for Children and Families.
  • Voydanoff, P. (1983). Unemployment: Family, strategies for adaptation. In C. R. Figley & H. I. McCubbin (Eds.), Stress and the family, II-Coping with catastrophe (pp. 90-102). New York: Brunner/Mazel.
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  • Waters, L. E., & Moore, K. A. (2001). Coping with economic deprivation during unemployment. Journal of Economic Psychology, 22, 461-482.
  • Werner, E. E. (1990). High-risk children in young adulthood: A longitudinal study from birth to 32 years. Annual Progress in Child Psychiatry and Child Development, 180-193.

Updated Wednesday, June 25, 2008.

Updated Tuesday, August 05, 2014