The weekend before my one-year anniversary at my previous workplace, my colleagues and I receive an email from HR. It was one I had been dreading but also expected – I wrote for the aviation industry, and with planes grounded and travel pretty much at a standstill because of COVID-19, it was all a matter of time.
Business on our end was bad and despite doing everything they could (supposedly), management decided that it was time to let some employees go. Management (through the words of HR) blamed the retrenchment on the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting circuit breaker that had forced several businesses to press pause indefinitely.
Throughout their communication with us, they acronymised the COVID-19 circuit breaker to CCB. In my head, the same three letters repeated too, except its meaning entirely explicit and something my mother wouldn’t be too pleased with hearing.
The dreaded conversation
I was called into the conference room the Tuesday we were allowed back in offices. My supervisor and an HR representative sat stoic, looking somewhat regretful at the news they were about to give me. The whole conversation took less than five minutes, then I was asked to handover any work, pack, and leave by the end of the day.
At 5.05 p.m. on 2 June 2020, I was officially retrenched, for the second time in my very short seven-year career.
The question now: “what next?”
I had some idea on what to do – so did most of the 70 millennials who responded to a survey we ran on how prepared they were in the face of retrenchment.
Millennials are facing what could be the biggest crisis that defines their generation. Although often called ‘strawberry’ by boomers for our so-called weak nature, research by Sea published in partnership with the World Economic Forum, found that three out of four Gen Z-ers and millennials displayed resilience and adaptability during this crisis.
This rings true for our survey as well. Respondents said they were confident about having a plan of action, averaging a score of 4.1 out of 5, with 5 being most confident. “I know what I have to do in order to search for a job again,” said Thomas, who works in IT. “[Looking for a job] isn’t something we’re unfamiliar with, since most of us have probably changed jobs a few times by now.”
For Thomas, his plans were quite clear cut. Firstly, he would update his resume, then he would reach out to his network on LinkedIn for job leads, as well as hunt on job boards for openings. Since he would now finally have the time, Thomas would also take up courses that would upgrade himself as a worker.
But easier said than done, right?
What about the mental ordeal that comes from being retrenched?
Again, millennials in our survey were quite sure they would be able to handle the stress and anxiety that would come with being retrenched during these uncertain times. On a scale of 1 to 5, our respondents scored a 3.6 in being mentally prepared if faced with retrenchment. However, we should also point out that most of our respondents were fortunate enough to still be employed during what is considered the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Millennials who had been retrenched, however, spoke of a different story. Out of 70 respondents, three were retrenched because of the COVID-19 pandemic: Myself, a former deputy editor at a publishing house, Olivia, a former air stewardess at an overseas carrier, and Syafia, who worked in a graphic design firm.
Losing part of a person’s identity
For Olivia, it was the initial shock of not having a routine that threw her off. “I was in this role for three years; it was part of my identity and when I didn’t have that anymore, I didn’t even know who I was or what to do with my life.”
The Singapore Counselling Centre (SCC) recognises that a sense of loss is often felt by those who are retrenched. “The initial reaction from many… who have been in the same job for many years, is that life has lost all meaning,” said Dr John Lim, president of the SCC.
“Many people are conditioned from a young age to define themselves by what they do and how much they earn. I see many patients who experience a loss of self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness and guilt when they lose their job,” shared Dr Adrian Wang, a consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, in an interview with ChannelNewsAsia.
A loss of self-worth is also common among those who are retrenched. I, myself, was fine for the most part of my four months of retrenchment, but experienced depression about two months in.
By this point, I had already sent out close to a hundred resumes, reached out to my network for job opportunities and signed up for courses to upgrade myself – just about everything I had been told and planned to do.
But I was only extended two interviews that both resulted in dead-ends. It felt like I was putting in the work but not seeing any results. Each rejection was a blow to my self-esteem.
“The solution to job-search depression isn’t as easy as sending out more resumes,” says Dr Michelle Maidenberg, an adjunct graduate professor of cognitive behavioural therapy and human behaviour at the Silver School of Social Work at the New York University. “Even strong candidates aren’t guaranteed success, creating this constant uncertainty of not knowing when the job search will end.”
Of course, one of the bigger issues that can cause an increase in stress is the immediate loss of income. “It was like impending doom for me, when I found out I could be retrenched,” shares Syafia. The only child lives with her parents who both retired last year. Moreover, she’s preparing to get married in December.
“I never really took care of my finances, as I had assumed I had a steady job. But once I knew about my retrenchment, I started to panic, as I had a lot of monthly payments (mortgage, allowance to parents, wedding preparations) that I can’t pay off without an income,” she said.
It seemed easy enough to cut back on unnecessary spending, such as choosing to eat at home – it worked out perfectly since Syafia was retrenched in the middle of circuit breaker and wasn’t allowed to leave home anyway – but once Singapore entered Phase 2 and dining restrictions were lifted, all she wanted was to have meals with her friends she hadn’t seen for so long.
“Some people who knew that I was unemployed judged me for going out to cafes with friends when I was trying hard not to spend. But don’t I deserve to have a little fun during this crisis as well?”
Syafia added that not being able to live out the lifestyle she once had made her bitter towards her retrenchment. “I went through all five stages of grief multiple times regarding my retrenchment – mostly anger and depression though.”
So what can we do to mitigate mental health when facing retrenchment?
It is easy to wallow in self-pity, but experts agree that remaining positive makes it easier to cope. Here are tips we’ve picked up:
The decision wasn’t personal
It’s easy to feel that management probably hated you, and that’s why you were one of the first ones to go. But that is unlikely to be true. Janene Laas, an associate consultant for people development, wrote about her experience being retrenched five times, and said that “[retrenchment] feels very, very personal when it is happening” but once people realise that these are just business decisions, it becomes much easier to deal with the rejection.
“I was able to remove some of the negative emotions like anger and shame… I have done nothing wrong, this was a business decision and in no way related to my job performance or who I am as a person,” she said.
The same can be said about getting rejected from interviews. The job market is tough, and there are many more people fighting over a smaller pool of jobs right now. Companies choosing another candidate over you is also just a business decision.
Turn to positive people
We don’t mean unrealistic optimists who believe everything has to be sunshine and rainbows, and that every cloud has a silver lining. Instead, turn to family and friends who can support you during trying times without being patronising.
Dr Maidenberg explained that socialising is a good way to combat the isolation that many jobseekers face.
Syafia agrees with this point the most, saying spending time with her parents and friends helped her keep her mind off losing her job. It was just as important knowing who to spend time with. She explains, “I had an ex-colleague complain about the increased workload now that half the team was gone. As much as he was a dear friend while we worked together, I knew I had to cut him off because the negativity was unpleasant and all I could think of was ‘why didn’t this guy understand how fortunate he was in keeping his job?’”
Set up a new routine
If the loss of a job means losing your purpose in life, create a new one. Experts ChannelNewsAsia and The New York Times spoke to agreed that creating a day-to-day structure lessened anxiety and depression from losing a job.
Dr Dawn Norris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, suggested to those who have been retrenched to treat job hunting as their new job. Following a normal 9-to-6 workday routine, such as making coffee in the morning, running through emails until lunch, and going through a learning course until 6 pm “can help keep the search from bleeding into every area of your life”. Plus, the set hours and deadlines would push you to work more efficiently.
Do what you were never able to do, then use that to upskill yourself
Now that you have a little more time on your hands, use it to work on projects you’ve put off for so long, such as pursuing a hobby. “This can be an opportunity to explore hobbies that you were too busy to nurture; trying out new things and discovering other talents can help strengthen our identities,” says Dr Maidenberg.
If you still have SkillsFuture credits, this would be a good time to use them. Interests are just one way of diversifying your professional skills, but you could also use the credits to upgrade yourself in skills that are in demand.
As The Woke Salaryman puts it, “you’re going to have to do it anyway to prevent stagnating in your career,” so why not do it now when time is on your side?
For Olivia, upskilling herself is her most important goal right now. “I was in the service line for so long and did not really have a chance to put my degree to good use. Things have changed and I realise that for me to be hireable, I have to ensure my skills are still relevant,” said the communications degree holder. She has since signed up for digital marketing courses with an academy that specialises in certifications for professional adults.
Plan out your finances
Ideally, planning out your finances should happen before any risk of retrenchment. Do you have enough savings to sustain you for at least six months to a year? If not, where can you cut spending? Also, this might sound counterintuitive, but unemployment is the best time to get a financial planner, according to experts at MoneyMarketing.
Work with your financial planner or advisor to sort out budgeting issues. SingSave also insists that during unemployment, “the most important thing is not to let your insurance policy lapse”. While policies might have to change when you can no longer afford premiums, going through long-term financial plans and selling off existing assets, could lift some of the financial burden of losing a job.
Most importantly, take a deep breath
“Relax, breathe, chill,” are three words a friend consistently repeated to me during my job hunt. It sounded useless to someone who has anxiety, but it soon became a mantra that helped calm me during some stressful times.
This isn’t a way to invalidate any feelings you might have when facing retrenchment. But know that you’re not alone. After all, these things are out of our hands, and if we can’t change what’s going to happen, then there’s no other choice but to “relax, breathe, chill”.
You’ve got this.