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Unemployment & Depression: How Job Stress Affects Mental Health

Written by Melissa Carmona

& Medically Reviewed by Eric Patterson, LPC

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Last Updated - 6/17/2022

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Updated 06/17/2022

Unemployment, especially when combined with other stressors, can have a huge influence on mental health and well-being by causing depression, anxiety and other unwanted effects.

More than the place people go for 40 hours each week, a person’s job is a vital part of their identity as it helps establish who they are as a person. When a person cannot find employment or when their employment is terminated, this shift sends shockwaves through many facets of their life, especially their mental health and well-being.

The Connection Between Job Status & Mental Health

People may think that a job is only related to money, but a person’s employment, profession and career mean so much more than the financial implications. When someone feels comfortable, productive and fulfilled in their work life, they experience lower levels of stress, which translates to increased happiness at home.

Of course, any workplace can create some levels of stress. When job stress is high, it creates a ripple of frustration and tension that affects all other parts of life. The highly-stressed employee will show diminished attention and concentration at work and increased irritability or sadness at home.

Even though stress can become high, the financial rewards paired with a sense of community and purpose make the employment stress easier to manage. The greatest damage occurs when a person loses their job, cannot find any employment at all or have become disabled so that they can’t reenter the workforce.

Without a job, a person is faced with a host of tangible and intangible concerns like:

  • Unstable or inadequate finances
  • Housing concerns
  • Loss of health insurance
  • Lack of social connections
  • Feeling less productive or purposeful
  • Limited ability to form an identity

When a person is armed with healthy coping skills, they can effectively cushion these issues, but those who cannot face several physical and mental health concerns.

What experts know for sure is that:

  • Long-term unemployment affects mental health negatively
  • The negative effects impact black and Latinx individuals more significantly
  • Short-term unemployment carries a less negative influence
  • People with more education are affected more significantly by unemployment than those with less education

Related: How Employers Are Helping – Or Not – Mitigate the Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health (Study)

Depression and Unemployment

One of the primary concerns unemployed people face is depression. Without income, a work-related identity, a feeling of purpose and a sense of accomplishment, the growing stress will easily transition into depressive symptoms.

People with jobs may experience the pain of depression as well, but those who are unemployed often have fewer protective factors to balance the stress. Common protective factors include:

  • Feeling safe and supported
  • Physical and economic stability
  • Strong family relationships
  • Good self-esteem
  • Being physically and mentally healthy otherwise

As periods of unemployment lengthen, the protective factors begin to erode and let depression grow stronger. Not only will unwanted symptoms emerge, but people will also be more likely to explore negative coping skills to offset the impact of depression.

Increased Substance Use During Unemployment

Substance use is just one way people seek to manage their unemployment-related depression. Rather than seeking out healthy coping skills, people resort to the “quick fix” of alcohol and other drugs to modify their mood and forget their problems.

Related Topic: Alcohol and Depression

COVID-19 has created other layers to their problem, though. Many people became unemployed, and as the crisis moves forward, there is no end to their joblessness in sight.

Also, with restrictions in place to maintain physical health and safety, many people are being cut off from their coping skills. People may feel unable to:

  • Socialize with friends
  • Visit family members
  • Go to the movies or out to eat
  • Participate in sports or watch sporting events
  • Exercise in a gym or health club

In 2020, unemployment, anxiety, anger, boredom, depression, isolation and substance abuse are all interconnected. A recent survey by The Recovery Village shows that substance use has increased in 2020, especially among young adults.

Another study by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that depression and anxiety symptoms are growing month after month as the pandemic continues.

How To Cope With Unemployment Depression

Coping with depression is usually a challenge, but coping with depression during the coronavirus pandemic is even more complex because stress is higher, healthy outlets are scarce, and the world’s uncertainty seems to grow each day. Coping is always possible, though. Here’s how:

  • Fix the physical.
    People may want to address the mental health concerns head on, but sometimes, giving attention and time to your physical health is a great start. By eating well, prioritizing sleep and getting more exercise, you put yourself in a better position to recover.
  • Limit the content.
    Being stuck inside more probably means that you are staring at your phone endlessly. Many people are consuming copious amounts of content about politics, COVID-19, and other stressors. There is a fine line between being informed and being overwhelmed, so turn off your screens and search for beauty in your world.
  • Control the controllable.
    Wanting to improve your employment or mental health is fantastic, but you have limited control over these issues. You cannot force someone to hire you and you cannot make your brain stop being depressed. Practice patience and understanding while being kind to yourself to shrink the unwanted effects of unemployment and depression.
  • Find yourself.
    If you are used to being identified by your profession, this period of unemployment allows you to rediscover who you are, what you like and what you want to accomplish in your life. It’s not a crisis. It’s an opportunity.

Job Stress & Working During COVID

Losing your job is not the only way to feel stress during COVID. The pandemic is changing the way people are working in nearly every sector.

Frontline healthcare workers are at-risk of daily exposures to COVID. Teachers are forced to adapt to changing educational standards. More people are working from home, and others must wear masks all day. Whatever the job looked like in 2019, it probably feels different in 2020.

Any change brings the possibility of stress. Even something like working from home, which seems convenient and enjoyable (who wouldn’t want to work in sweats?), can cause unpredictable stress in the form of poor office space, frustration with video calls and decreased productivity.

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Coping Strategies for Job-Related Stress

The best way to start the process of coping with job-related stress is by identifying the source of your stress. People frequently skip this step and begin trying to implement strategies that do not help the problem. Common sources of workplace stress include:

  • Expectations on yourself that are too high
  • A demanding boss
  • Incompetent coworkers
  • Feeling a lack of value or respect

Once the source is identified, you must ask yourself, “Can I change this problem?” Some issues are going to be outside of your control, and trying to change them will only create more stress and frustration.

Focus on addressing what you can and work to accept what you cannot change. If acceptance is not possible, then it’s time to begin looking for a new job.

If you are determined to make your employment work, consider:

  • Forming and maintaining strict boundaries about your time and attention by not responding to emails, texts and phone calls outside of work
  • Having frank and assertive conversations with your superiors
  • Explore ways to make your home office more conducive
  • Invest in some additional equipment and supplies to lower stress
  • Lowering your expectations of yourself and others

How to Ask Your Employer for Mental Health Support

Part of the conversation with your employer should focus on your mental health and well-being. In 2020, employers and employees need to check in with each other regarding mental health and coping. As jobs, expectations and work settings change due to the coronavirus, employers should respect the needs of the individual.

If your employer is not bringing up the topic, take the lead and ask:

  • What measures are you taking to improve employee mental health?
  • What can you offer me to ensure my employment does not impair my health?
  • Are there any policies prohibiting me from using sick time for mental health issues?
  • Is the company providing any workshops regarding mental health?
  • What level of reimbursement should I expect for equipment and supplies needed for my job?

Remember, all conversations have to start somewhere. You may not get the desired response at the beginning, but it only means you need to continue the conversation in the future. These conversations may be uncomfortable, but they go a long way to reducing mental health and substance abuse stigma.

Symptoms of Depression & Anxiety

During a global health crisis, it is easy for mental health symptoms to sneak up gradually. Always be on the lookout for symptoms of depression like:

  • Low mood and irritability
  • Changes in sleep, diet, and activity level
  • Lower motivation and energy
  • Feelings sped up or slowed down
  • Poor attention and concentration
  • Lower self-worth and higher guilt
  • Thoughts of death and suicide

Symptoms of anxiety can present as:

  • Higher levels of worry and fear
  • Feeling nervous and shaky
  • Sweating more, feeling flushed and fidgeting
  • Being unable to sleep well and having a poor appetite

Some levels of depression and anxiety are common and typical, but any time the symptoms last more than two weeks consistently or radically impact your life, it may be time to seek mental health or addiction services.

Finding Help for Depression

Finding help for depression, anxiety, or substance use issues does not have to be complicated. Someone seeking care should:

  • Call the number on the back of their insurance card
  • Check with their county assistance office about free or low-cost treatment options
  • Consult with a trusted friend about available services
  • Request a referral from a primary care physician
  • Phone the nearest mental health agency

People should feel free to explore a number of treatment options before finalizing their choice. Mental health providers can help by:

  • Exploring the causes of your symptoms
  • Offering helpful coping skills
  • Recommending medications to limit symptoms
  • Providing strategies to improve thoughts, feelings and behaviors

The Recovery Village at Baptist Health offers a full range of helpful treatments for mental health and addiction issues for those seeking dual diagnosis treatment in Florida. Being in between jobs is a great opportunity to devote more time and attention to yourself and your health.

View Sources

Goldsmith, A. and Diette, T. “Exploring the Link Between Unemployment and Mental Health Outcomes.” American Psychological Association. April 2012. Accessed October 30, 2020.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction: DrugFacts.” January 17. 2019. Accessed October 30, 2020.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).” January 2018. Accessed October 30, 2020.

Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Orgera,K., Cox, C., Garfield, R., Hamel, L., Muñana, C., and Chidambaram, P. “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use.”

Kaiser Family Foundation. August 21, 2020. Accessed on October 30, 2020.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment.” October 2015. Accessed October 30, 2020