Why does losing your job hurt so much?

Job loss is one of the most traumatic things we go through, supposedly.


Is it because we lose our entire income? That can be replaced. People replace their incomes in various ways (new job, side gig, start a business, etc.).

Is it because we lose our status in society? My “general manager” job title definitely gave me a sense of social security. I’ve since learned that using a title to define your self-worth, even your professional self-worth, is not healthy.

Is it because we find out how “mortal” we are, with regard to our career? I thought I was in the “inner circle,” and safe… little did I realize how powerful politicking was… and how someoneelse could impact my security.

Is it because we were once secure, and now we are thrown into complete unkown? We worked hard to get where we were, and now we have to start over, trying to prove ourselves against thousands of others….

Is it because… ____________________________?


And, looking at it from an emotionless perspective, are the reasons justified?  Should it really hurt that much?

19 thoughts on “Why does losing your job hurt so much?”

  1. It hurts because banishment from your tribe is the worst punishment for a crime. Losing your job is usually not related to any criminal act on your part. Make your tribe(s) outside of the workplace and it won’t hurt as much.

  2. Hi Jason!

    Thanks for asking this important question (and for offering some of the reasons). I would also add to the list (and have heard this from clients) the feeling that our skills, professional self, expertise, and our own self has been devalued. There are many things we can do (and help our clients do) that will help deal with these feelings. My sense is, it’s not at all unlikely that anyone going through job loss experiences them at some point, though (even if it’s just for a little while).

    Thanks for always being a great job seeker advocate!

  3. 1.) Yes.
    2.) Yes.
    3.) Yes.
    4.) Yes and
    5.) it’s because we lose our “centeredness”. Not a single one of us can “feel like ourselves” if we lose our sense of centeredness. Thus, to me, the whole value of work is the value we derive from working on something from the center of ourselves. Most of us use “our jobs” for that centering purpose… it can be hell to replace and is not for the faint of heart nor for those who don’t have endless amounts of pitbull levels of determination…

  4. I agree it is a yes to all of the questions you posed, and I think losing a job is different for men than women.

    While it is hard for anyone, I think many men connect being employed with their value/worth in their personal lives and society, e.g., bread winner, etc. For many women, I think it is more associated with the emotional devastation of being eliminated from the group/corporate family, etc.

  5. Yes, I agree with all of the above. Having a job is part of our identity, so when it is taken from us, we may not know “who” we are anymore. There is a feeling of failure–even if it’s a layoff. Unless the company closes completely, you wonder why wasn’t one of the chosen few who were saved. Then there is the fear of the unknown. I describe it as going through an earthquake–with nothing to hold onto.

  6. It’s important that businesses realize that no matter how often the organisation says ‘it’s just business and it’s not personal’ it still feels personal. I believe for many people it feels like a sense of betrayal after all they have given to the company. For some who have been with an organisation for a long time, it can also seem a loss of many friends and a sense of ‘home’.

    Good companies recognize this and take great pains to handle the situation with care and respect. It’s amazing the difference it can make to someone undergoing redundancy of their role when the business acknowledges the individual’s past contributions. The true tell of a good business to work for in my opinion is the manner it handles these situations. Change is a constant today and how companies respond to this is important, highly visible and makes a significant impact to their employer brand.

  7. All of the above, and…. let’s not forget the tremendous amount of fear that comes with being unemployed, especially in this economy when many are unemployed for extended periods of time. The fears are many: fear of never working again; fear of losing one’s home/car/possessions/savings, etc; fear of how others will view us. Fear hurts.

  8. I identify to some degree with many of these. One that is especially painful is that here I thought I was doing a good job (and had the job evals to prove it) and one day I got called into my bosses office and there sat an HR rep.

    No information as to the why (as others were not being let go), yet a short time before I had been told both verbally and in writing and in my wallet (through a nice quarterly bonus. Could earn up to 10% of quarterly earnings each quarter. My lowest ever was 9%) I was doing a good job.

    Try to explain that to a job interviewer. It has been over 2 years and I still don’t know why I was let go.

  9. I think it’s the sense of having something taken from you. The process itself tends to run one’s dignity through the shredder on the way out. There are people whose job is is to execute, so to speak, on the job elimination. They become desensitized to what they are doing after a while.

  10. It is empowering to give your supervisor a resignation letter and 2 weeks notice, knowing you have a job offer you’ve accepted. You set your own terms.

    However, with job loss, you had to leave in an undignified way on their terms. And even if you did absolutely nothing wrong and there was no longer a need for your position, you somehow feel responsible. Employees lack the perception of seeing the value of their position from a business point of view.

    There are warning signs that some people miss. When it gets to that, one should empower themselves by conducting a confidential job search and securing a job offer with another company, or better yet building your own business.

    Bottom line: people want to leave on their own terms to go into the security of another position.

  11. The loss of a job, even for those let go for other than cause, feels like a betrayal.

    A long-running study shows the top three fears people have include divorce–another form of betrayal.

    As a coach, one of my requirements is to restore people’s faith in themselves after such a traumatic experience.

  12. For many of us our jobs are our identity, Besides losing our salaries, stability and routine we are banished like aliens to another world. Friendless we have to temporarily lose our niche in life. It is painful to start over. I think it is harder for men than women who still have motherhood as their main identity to fall back on. And for many of us we look foreward to change in our life that can also be like the chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.”

  13. All of the above comments are true and real, but matters the most is what you do to overcome that and recover from what is already lost and move on .

  14. One of the biggest outcomes of losing a job, besides loss of income and other areas mentioned, is that loss of self-identity, which can easily occur and can be a devastating emotional loss. Just think about the fact that “what do you do?” (meaniing, what is your occupation or job) is often one of the first questions we ask others, or respond to ourselves when meeting someone new. That tells us how significant we view having a job. So, suddenly, if we are without one, one of the prime ways we think about and view ourselves, based on the contributions we made, is gone. Also, the value and sense of self-esteem that we felt for ourselves, partly based on the roles we assumed at the job we did, has suddenly been thrust from us, leaving us with a negative impact as well. These are definitely among some of the important reasons why losing a job hurts so much.

  15. All great comments. It’s also the feeling of abandonment after you believe you’ve given so much. Regardless of the reasons, even if it has nothing to do with performance the bottom line is this: rejection. Being thrown off the team.

    It’s an important experience and growth opportunity for all of us. Painful, but hugely beneficial. If it hasn’t happened to you, it’s not a matter of why it’s a matter of when.

  16. I actually address this very issue in some of my workshops at DOL. More so through this economy, which now extends back to the last quarter of 2007! To me it is painful to see the extent and toll it has taken on some many peoples lives and I have no doubt we have not even begun to understand the implications it will have 10-20 yrs from now.

    When you go to another country and ask someone who they are, they tell you about their vacations, their families, their hobbies…..
    When you ask someone in the US we talk about our work! This is our culture-perhaps not the healthiest but this is our culture.

    In the US we work more hours, take less vacation time, with higher productivity than any other country in the world!

    When we loose our jobs we go through a grieving process, we loose sight of our identity. The dynamics and power in a household shift. Even the tiniest of children know something is wrong. The rules about how you apply for work today have radically changed and some of our clients do not fully understand that, and how to respond. Part of that grieving puts people in a dark place questioning themselves as to what they did wrong. The reality (with some exceptions) is they did not do anything wrong, this goes back to Wall Street misbehavior.

    People have taken major hits on their retirement savings. The range of people coming through our office has been brutal, CFO’s, VP’s, folks that had the same job for 15, 20, 25+ years. They don’t know if they can get those ‘golden years’ dream back. They are scared.

    I got out of college in the 80’s recession. There were no teaching jobs so I went into the Army and taught there. I got out of the Army in the 90’s recession. One war was enough for me. Went back to grad school. Figured I could help other disabled vets learn how to recreate themselves. I work with everyone now not just vets, but I will never forget what it feels like to sit in that chair across from me. Its humiliating, painful, confusing….. I’ll stop now  Just remember to treat every person you meet with dignity.

  17. I think it disrupts our routine and way of life – which even if not ideal, is at least safe and familiar. Losing a job, especially when you are not expecting it, is for a while like losing your purpose and a big part of our social network. Yet, it is a great wake-up call also to dig deeper for our purpose and re-negotiate what we want and need in a job. But in the meanwhile, it can be like wandering in the desert – and having no idea what is ahead. That is uncomfortable for us humans!

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