by Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP
Nothing is more self-esteem crushing than being educated, qualified, and enthusiastic about working in the social work profession and suffering through a bout of unemployment. You have perfected your résumés and cover letters. You are finding great jobs openings. Maybe you get to the last round of interviews, but you just aren’t landing that position.
Whether you still haven’t landed your first position after graduation, have been terminated from a position, are returning from staying home with your children, or are just in between jobs, a few months (or more) of unemployment can feel like an eternity.
During my own lengthy job search, I quickly learned that my social work job gives me a sense of purpose and self-worth, and without that, I felt lost. Here are some tips I hope will help you stay strong and guide you through one of the more stressful times of your life.
1. Stick to a schedule.
You can avoid falling into a black hole of self-doubt and depression by being disciplined and managing yourself appropriately. Treat your job search like a full-time job. Get up at your normal time, take a lunch break, and leave the “office” before dinner. If you spend your evenings job searching online and dwelling on your unemployment status, your confidence will deteriorate rapidly.
Get organized and make plans. Keep a notebook or spreadsheet of all the organizations you have targeted, jobs you have applied for, and the date when you applied. It doesn’t look good if an employer contacts you for an interview and you can’t remember which job you applied for. One of the best parts of being unemployed is that YOU are the boss. You can be flexible with your schedule and do what you want, as long as you stay on track!
2. Set reasonable, concrete goals.
Be realistic about the amount of time you devote every day to your job search. Most individuals can devote four to five hours per day to a job search, which can be draining. Start by setting small goals for networking, researching, and applying for jobs. Having a to-do list and sticking to it will make you feel as if you’re making good progress: “Set up two informational interviews this week,” “Find one new organization to target my job search,” or “Attend one in-person continuing education event.”
3. Get out of your house or apartment.
Sitting at home all day can get old quickly and may not be a healthy way to keep you motivated if you are staring at the pile of laundry in the corner. Take your laptop to a different setting, such as the public library or a coffee shop, for your online job search and résumé creation. Schedule something every day that will get you out and about to help you feel connected to the real world. Unemployment can feel like the “Twilight Zone” when you are in it long enough. Staying busy can make a lengthy job search feel more bearable. Don’t rely entirely on the Internet for your job search. These activities will not only get you out of the house, but will increase your job search success:
Network. Meeting and connecting with new people will only increase your chances of finding a job. As I have mentioned before, it is all about who you know! See my “The Social Social Worker: 10 Tools for Successful Networking” article for tips on why and how to network: http://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/career-jobs/the-social-social-worker-10-tools-for-successful-networking/
Professional Development. Take in-person continuing education classes to keep up on the latest trends. Don’t let yourself fall behind just because you’re not working. The best approach is to learn more about your particular area of practice, now that you have the time. This way, you will be ahead of your competition when it comes time to interview. When I was in my long-term job search, I entered a nonprofit leadership certificate program at a local university, which not only helped connect me with professionals in the area, but is something that stands out on my résumé. Don’t forget to check to see if the CE opportunity has an unemployed discount!
Volunteer. I can’t stress enough how important volunteering can be during your job search. Not only are you expanding your network to find a potential job, but you should be doing something you love. You chose social work for a reason. Find an organization and population you love to work with and commit to a volunteer position. Nothing is more uplifting than feeling valued and needed and doing something you love. Don’t forget—this is something to add to your résumé and LinkedIn profile. When I was in my long-term unemployment, I volunteered to take newly resettled refugees to the local clothing ministry to pick out a “new” wardrobe. It was my favorite part of the week.
4. Take care of yourself.
This should probably be point #1. Losing a job is one of the most stressful events in a person’s life. A job is much more than just a way we make a living. You most likely chose social work because it gives you a sense of purpose. Grief is a natural response to loss, and that includes the loss of a job. Recognizing that your mental health is delicate at this time is critical to successfully getting through this difficult time.
Talk to someone. It’s important to actively attend to fear, depression, and anxiety and find healthy ways to grieve your job loss or long-term unemployment. Acknowledging your feelings and challenging your negative thoughts will help you handle the loss and move on. You are a social worker. You should know this stuff, right? But many social workers feel that because they do know it, they should deal with it on their own. Is that what you would tell your client? “Deal with your issues on your own”? If you truly are experiencing depression, be sure to seek out therapy.
Eat right and exercise. It can be easy to fall out of a healthy eating and exercise routine when you are stressed out. Look on the bright side of this lousy situation: you have more time to devote to your self-care! Have you always wanted to learn how to cook certain healthy dishes or take a yoga class? Now is the time! If you don’t belong to a gym or have dropped your membership to save money, walking is free. Explore parks, the city, or if it is the middle of winter, become a mall walker. Use this time as a gift to care for your whole self.
Don’t beat yourself up. It’s easy to start criticizing or blaming yourself when you’ve lost your job or haven’t landed your first job. But it’s important to avoid putting yourself down. Don’t compare yourself to others. If your former classmates are finding jobs left and right, it is hard not to feel inadequate. You’ll need your self-confidence intact, especially when networking and interviewing.
Avoid conversations with negative (or stressful) people. “How are you going to pay your rent?” “Did you apply to that job I sent you?” “What do you do all day since you don’t have a job?” Having your friends (okay, your mother) ask you for the hundredth time if you have heard back from all those jobs you applied for is not helpful. They may feel they are being supportive by inquiring, but it really just adds to your stress. You need to be around optimistic people who can have a positive impact on your life. Politely tell people who ask that you will be sure to keep them informed. Ask them for positive thoughts. You need encouragement, not worst case scenarios.
Find time for you. Don’t feel guilty for taking time to relax or do something you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do if you were employed. Join a book club, take an art class, or travel if you can. Job search is incredibly stressful, and it is important to take the time to enjoy life. It is critical to find time not to think about your job search. I will always regret that I never took that pottery class when I was unemployed. I felt guilty about spending the money and was worried about finding a job and not being able to finish the course. Besides retirement, when in your life will you be able to take a creative writing course at your local community college at 2:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday?
5. Stay connected.
It’s easy to withdraw from social situations if you are embarrassed by your unemployment status or are tired of answering questions about your job search. This is the most important time to connect, or reconnect, with those who can help you.
Reach out to your support network. That is what they are there for: family, friends, and professional colleagues should be willing to help you through this difficult time. Don’t be afraid to tell them you are unemployed and let them know how to support you.
Don’t forget to reach out to your professional references. Meet them for coffee or lunch to let them know how your job search is going. Don’t let them be blindsided if they are contacted by a potential employer and they haven’t heard from you in years.
Join a job search group. When I relocated from Minnesota to North Carolina, I had to start from scratch with my job search. I immediately found three job search groups to attend. Even though I was always the only social worker, these groups helped me meet new people who could connect me with folks in the nonprofit and social work world. The groups gave me new ideas for job search and made me realize I wasn’t alone.
Find a group that is right for you. If you can’t find one, start one! Post on your local social work LinkedIn group that you would like to start a Job Search Support Group in your area or online. These groups can help you stay on top of your job search and keep you motivated.
Don’t be too desperate. I got to a point when I was feeling so anxious about my long-term unemployment, I paid a well-known local career coach for an hour consultation. I learned from her that I was doing everything right, which did not really help me at all. Coaches and job search consultants can be incredibly helpful, but don’t fall prey to paying for a coach who doesn’t know anything about the social work or nonprofit sector.
As I have mentioned before, don’t take a job that is not the right fit for you or with an unhealthy organization. If you need income, check out temporary employment opportunities. Be sure you don’t find yourself already regretting the offer you accepted and have to leave a bad situation. Check out “The Social Work Job Offer: Decline or Accept?” http://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/career-jobs/the-social-work-job-offer-decline-or-accept/
I hope you will keep a forward momentum and stay positive throughout your job search.
Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP, is the Associate Executive Director for the National Association of Social Workers, North Carolina Chapter (NASW-NC). She received her dual degree in social work and public policy from the University of Minnesota and currently provides membership support, including résumé review, to the members of NASW-NC.