Various forms of the same headline say it all: “The worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression.”
The U.S. Labor Department declared back in early May that 20.5 million people had abruptly lost their jobs as many businesses shut down or significantly altered their workforce operations during the coronavirus pandemic.
For mental health counselors, the COVID-19 crisis has prompted a plethora of alterations in conjunction with health-risk anxiety — from a major uptick in telehealth services to exacerbated symptoms for clients working from home extensively for the first time in their lives.
But what about adding the loss of a job or reduced wages on top of everything else? Quarantining takes on new meaning when a career is significantly throttled. The current unemployment rate is nearly double what it was during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
“If you think about the college graduates of 2008, they’ve been in the workforce for a decade now, and they’re experiencing another major recession,” says Clewiston Challenger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut. “This time, there could be a longer lasting effect on the job market. Your job is a major source of identity, so therapists can play a serious role in [helping clients find] that temporary identity without work.”
Clients also may have to adjust their mental health treatments based on changing insurance coverage from a lost job, and clinicians could find themselves adjusting their rates to accommodate financial burdens.
Of course, working clients have felt emotionally compromised too.
Ingrid Erickson, a licensed professional counselor and member of the American Counseling Association, works as a career counselor for Heritage Professional Associates in Chicago and as a leadership coach for BetterUp, a training firm that helps employees and companies bolster their work fulfillment and culture. She has noticed a common trend in which still-employed clients have felt an extra emotional weight over the past several months. As such, her therapeutic approach has been adjusted into “a mini treatment plan in the context of a larger one” — a compartmentalized plan with a sharpened focus on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting each client, and then a broader scope that contains the client’s overriding goals pre-COVID.
“A common theme is that people have been running [over] capacity,” Erickson says. “Work provides a rhythm to our lives, and for some that normalcy was taken away amidst all the uncertainty of COVID. It’s created a situation where a lot of people who are working are pretty maxed out. There’s a lot of fear, and it can be difficult constantly trying to figure out what the new normal looks like. Emotionally, cognitively, it can be really draining.
“With a lot of clients, we’ve had a mini reassessment because COVID is uniquely impacting each person in different ways, whether it’s job insecurity, high-risk loved ones, interpersonal by living in tighter quarters … It’s important to take a step back and see how the added stress is playing a role in maybe bringing a lot of things to the [emotional] surface that normal life doesn’t. I find it helpful to acknowledge how the stress affects our work life. There’s this expectation of doing our lives as normal. Well, it’s not normal right now. We’re needing patience and compassion for ourselves.”
One way that normalcy can be hindered is in clients’ bank accounts. Gideon Litherland, a licensed clinical professional counselor at Veduta Consulting in Chicago and a Ph.D. candidate at Oregon State University researching supervision effectiveness, says broaching financial concerns with clients can become necessary, even if they are avoidant of such topics.
“This is the worst economic recession since the Great Depression,” Litherland says. “We can’t ignore or not talk about what clients may very well want to ignore. If the client does not want to tend to them, what are the fears in attending to those feelings? It becomes appropriate to say, ‘Hey, things are going on economically. How is this affecting you financially?’ It is clinically relevant to check in with a client about financial stress for their mental well-being. The experiences can be ‘Where’s my next paycheck coming from? Where could I live if I get kicked out of my apartment? What happens if I declare for bankruptcy?’ It’s entirely within our role and purview as clinicians to tend to a client’s basic needs, and [financial concerns] fall under that.”
Erickson says mindsets are different for every individual based on where their career trajectory was at before the coronavirus pandemic. She adds that the past several months have greatly influenced quarter-life and midlife assessments in reverse directions based on where clients were at in their identity development.
“The market is not great right now and very unpredictable, so a lot of people who were going through a job search put actively looking on the shelf for now,” she says. “Then there might be others who almost see this breaking period, whether furloughed or laid off or working from home, as an opportunity to rethink what they want their careers to look like. There’s a freedom to really reassess with creative thinking and problem-solving. When we do career thinking on a shot clock, we don’t do our best.”
A recent Wall Street Journal report found that the worst of the coronavirus shutdowns may be over. The uptick of air travel, hotel bookings and mortgage applications could signal a turn for the better economically in the U.S. However, those improvements could be tied to temporary factors, with emergency spending from Congress among key reasons for more temporary spending.
Erickson says that looking ahead to brighter days, while necessary, can be a double-edged sword. One thing she is coaching her clients with is the premise of separating short-term goals and emotions from long-term goals and emotions.
“Long-term hope and optimism with a vision for the future can be an anchor during times of stress,” she says. “Planning for the future has a value, but at the same time, fear and anxiety for the future can paralyze, so we run the risk of getting stuck worrying and rehashing over and over to where we’re emotionally suffering based on something that hasn’t actually even happened.
“I’ve found it can be helpful to shorten the time frames to avoid the emotional flooding and just … focus on making it through the next day and week. If you’re a small business owner, instead of asking, ‘How do I help my business survive?’ then focusing on immediate issues, what’s within your immediate control and then coming back later to focus on the months ahead.”
The gradual reopening of states also means that people who were working from home will be thrust back into their old routines and structures, albeit with a renewed outlook.
“There have been a lot of positives that have come from being away from the day-to-day,” Challenger says. “For many people who see their job as their identity, perhaps this crisis gave them a chance to focus on other facets of their life and look outside of their identities as employees. And now more than ever, companies are more comfortable with distance communication, so we might see some of these industries morphing into more Zoom meetings and working from home.”
Even as some people appear set for a return to normalcy in the short term, others are likely to experience lingering impacts from the economic crisis. For instance, college graduates who were poised to enter their respective professions after earning their degrees have instead been greeted by closed doors and blocked opportunities because of the coronavirus.
“COVID happened so abruptly,” Challenger says, “and now all of the sudden companies aren’t in a position to spend money anymore. So, that job a college graduate might’ve wanted is gone.”
In the long run though, Challenger adds, “The class of 2020 will be built on resilience.”
That notion of resiliency and a bounce-back effect is where Erickson sees the silver lining.
“Resiliency isn’t built in times where it’s easy,” she says. “We’ve been forced to live our lives without resources in ways we never had before. If anything, hopefully these times can show that we can make it and shows us what we can do.”
See Counseling Today‘s August magazine for an in-depth feature on helping 2020 graduates navigate life after college amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scott Gleeson is a licensed professional counselor at DG Counseling in Downers Grove, Illinois, and Chicago. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.