It started off as a typical day at the office. You walk in and greet your colleagues with a cup of coffee in your hand. Your workday starts off normally – you are replying emails from your colleagues and clients about an upcoming project. Suddenly, you are asked to go in for a meeting that’s not in your calendar. Sure, that’s happened before, no problem. After all, some meetings must take place at the eleventh hour to tie up loose ends before a huge business presentation. However, this time it’s different. Something feels off. You find yourself in a meeting room with a poker-faced HR representative and the next few moments are something you replay in your mind for days to come. It is as if time has slowed down as your HR representative informs you that you have just been retrenched with no prior warning. As you despairingly pack your belongings, you are in a state of shock and disbelief – how could this be happening to you after all your hard work and dedication to the company? How will you find another source of income at such short notice?
Sadly, these types of occurrences are not uncommon. However, dealing with retrenchment is still extremely challenging. The shock of going from employed to unemployed can be staggering – above the sudden loss of a steady income. You will feel a wide range of emotions – hurt, confusion and also fear above all else. How will you continue to support your lifestyle and family without a steady income?
The Singapore Counselling Centre says it has seen an average increase of 30 percent year-on-year of older Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) seeking counselling due to retrenchment, and notes that the range of emotions are extreme because the retrenched worker feels the loss of:
- A daily routine and structure: many PMETs find themselves feeling out of place having been thrown a curveball in their lifestyle
- A work-based social network: some who have been retrenched feel as if they are missing out on their social life since they have formed strong friendships with their colleagues who are now leading different lifestyles
- A sense of purposeful activity and professional identity: several individuals feel as if they have lost their purpose in life having been fired from their jobs as they are now revoked of their responsibilities
- A sense of security and certainty: many also fear change. They fear the unknown and yearn assurance that they will be able to adjust financially and mentally
“The initial reaction from many, especially older PMETs who have been in the same job for many years, is that life has lost all meaning,” says the Centre’s president, Dr John Lim. They feel broken about the dejection but also fearful about change and whether or not they would able to adjust. Many of them miss having a sense of familiarity and sought reassurance to cope with change.
Five Emotional Stages of Retrenchment
Typically, there are five emotional stages of retrenchment most PMETs go through after getting fired. These include but are not limited to:
Shock and Denial
Some individuals are in disbelief when they get retrenched. Sometimes, denial can be a helpful coping mechanism that helps you adjust. However, without accepting the reality of the situation, shock and denial could become toxic to your mental state.
Dr Lim cites the example of Michael (not his real name), who was retrenched at the age of 47 because his company decided to discontinue the product line that he was in charge of as it was at the end of its product lifecycle. Michael had been working in the same company for 22 years and he had been certain that with his proven contributions and dependability, he would never be laid off. However, Michael soon learned that such was just wishful thinking on his part. When he was first retrenched, he described the feeling as “surreal”. He found it difficult to stomach the fact that the corporation had decided to let him go despite the colossal amount of contributions he made to the company. Furthermore, the company and his colleagues had become his home and friends – he was in a state of disbelief that his lifestyle would soon do a 180-degree turn.
For Michael, the company decided not to continue with the product line that he was in charge of as they felt that the product was at the end of its product life cycle. In addition, the company felt that Michael’s skills and contributions would only benefit the product line that they intended to fold. Thus, one ordinary day, the HR management called Michael into the meeting room and informed him that they had decided to let him go.
As Michael retreated to his desk to pack his belongings, his very first response was shock, closely followed by denial — that it was not happening to him and the company had made a mistake. How could this happen to someone who had contributed so much to the company? Michael repeatedly tried appealing the retrenchment but to no avail. Sadly, the company had decided against rehiring Michael despite persistent appeals.
“Michael just couldn’t believe that the company whom he had helped grow, whom he had supported even during its challenges, was now abandoning him,” says Dr Lim.
His very first response was shock, closely followed by denial — that it was not happening to him and the company had made a mistake. Michael repeatedly tried appealing the retrenchment but to no avail.
“Michael just couldn’t believe that the company whom he had helped grow, whom he had supported even during its challenges, was now abandoning him,” says Dr Lim.
Anger soon took over. Michael started resenting the Director who approved his retrenchment. He felt betrayed and enraged by the Director of whom he had worked closely with. For a period of time, Michael blamed the Director for his retrenchment. He believed that the Director had it in for him. “At times, he was furious to the point that he found himself wishing his director would be hit by a truck and he even felt like burning down the company’s premises,” adds Dr Lim. Michael felt as if the Director had double-crossed him.
Isn’t anger bad for you? Dr Lim explains that processing the aftermath of retrenchment involves going through a range of emotions, often including anger. “Going through stages is good as there is progression. It means you are moving forward rather than staying stagnant,” he elaborates. Dr Lim describes anger as a normal and valid emotion after being retrenched. Getting angry is a natural reaction to circumstances that are not in one’s favour. He clarifies how anger is a part of the healing process which needs to be addressed in order for an individual to come to terms with the retrenchment and move forward in his life.
3. Depression and Acceptance
The next wave of emotion for Michael was depression — where overwhelming waves of emotions started making it difficult for him to deal with his every day routine. Every day following his retrenchment, Michael felt crestfallen by the retrenchment and his Director’s ‘betrayal’. He struggled to find a light at the end of the tunnel. At times, he wished he could have turned back to clock to find where he went wrong and whether he could have done anything to prevent his retrenchment. Michael grappled between feelings of dejection and grief daily. His depression affected his daily life as well as the people around him.
Another key emotion Michael struggled with was guilt. Here, he started blaming himself for losing his job — replaying the retrenchment in his head and wondering if he could have negotiated something with his bosses. He felt apologetic for the small mistakes he had made in the past and pondered upon whether these minor faults could have influenced his retrenchment. Moreover, he felt blameworthy and ashamed for not being able to continue supporting his family and lifestyle in a way that he was used to.
5. Acceptance and Relief
Michael started to realise that these feelings of grief and guilt were pushing him away from his loved ones by driving a wedge between them. He realized how his depression and anger had caused his loved ones to become distant. It was these acute feelings of sadness and guilt which spurred Michael to seek help from an experienced counsellor, who helped him realise that retrenchment was not the end of his life. Michael desired to go beyond and wanted to use his retrenchment as a helpful life lesson and stimulus to motivate him to look for other opportunities in the workforce.
Key Tips to Cope with Retrenchment
Counselling helped Michael learn the importance of not blaming himself. Dr Lim points out that this is important to grasp as it can create an emotional distance between an individual and their loved ones who could provide the necessary support needed for an individual to recover from the negative emotions caused by retrenchment. In addition, counselling also taught him that anger and grief were completely normal when coping with rejection.
Eventually, after many counselling sessions, Michael came to terms with the fact that he would no longer be a part of the company he had helped to grow and develop. However, the incident was still an experience for Michael who decided, never again, to be bogged down by rejection and retrenchment. Soon after he was fired, Michael came to understand and incorporate the following healing actions/thoughts into his life:
Life can Still be Fulfilling, even when Retrenched
Michael realised that his life was not defined just by his career and neither was his self-worth. His retrenchment was not an indication of his self-worth and his capabilities as an individual. Instead, Michael realized that he had countless other opportunities to hone his skills and earn an income. In addition, he learnt the importance of counting his blessings. In his case, he had a loving family whom he could turn to while weekend volunteer work added more meaning to his life. He decided to focus on the positives and blessings he had in his life instead of concentrating on the pitfalls and negatives. Michael realized how changing his perspective could help him cope when the circumstances were not in his favour.
“Once he realised this, Michael understood that a career setback does not mean that the person is career-condemned for the rest of his life. He concluded that one setback did not mean that he had completely failed as an individual. Moreover, Michael also realised that there are other things out there that he enjoyed and could relate to. This allowed him to better accept his retrenchment and decide to move forward,” explains Dr Lim. The experience taught Michael to be lionhearted in the face of rejection.
Catch Up with Things You Never Had Time For
As part of the healing process, a key question most counsellors ask next is “what have you always wanted to do but couldn’t because of work?”
When trying to find your purpose in life again after getting retrenched, you could catch up on activities you never had the time for because of your commitment to work.
These could include:
- Picking up new skills — there are career conversion programmes such as WSG’s Professional Conversion Programmes (PCPs) that can help PMETs move into new occupations or sectors. This way, you could stay relevant by making a career switch into a new job or sector. This will allow you to pick up new skills that would also help you remain competitive.
- Taking the time to review your finances. A clear view of your financial position will help you plan ahead. Try to find out how you can save in a smart and efficient manner.
- Picking up a new hobby — learning something new helps you grow and makes you happy. This could be anything – from pottery, photography, wakeboarding or even cooking. The world is your oyster so use the opportunity to explore and discover more about your merits and skills!
- Exercising — take up your favourite sport again or sign up for a group exercise class. This could range from swimming, cycling or Yoga. Not only will you keep healthy and fit, exercising will help you feel more confident and positive. Furthermore, adopting a healthy lifestyle could also improve your cognitive abilities in the long run.
- Going on a holiday with your loved ones or visiting places on your bucket list — to reconnect and de-stress. Forget about the retrenchment and your worries – instead, soak in the rich cultures and heritages as you see more of the world. Use the opportunity to find yourself again and break away from any feelings of resentment or grief.
Think of Others
Thinking of others may seem strange but during challenging times in life, such as a retrenchment, it’s important not to fall into a pit of self-focus or pity. These toxic feelings could affect your mental and emotional well-being. Dr Lim describes this as only focusing on yourself and your needs/wants. Self-centred thinking could affect your ability to empathise with others. “Being self-centric at such a time is a sure way to sink deeper into the abyss of depression,” he notes. In fact, it could also keep you passive and affect your perception of life.
A good way of addressing this is by volunteering at a charity of your choice, especially one you feel inclined towards. Giving back is an excellent way to find your confidence and cope with dejection. Getting involved in charity through fundraising initiatives and coordinating events allow you to help others with their struggles — which helps put your life into perspective — in areas you might actually enjoy, such as working with animals or contributing to the lives of younger/older people in need. Also, use the opportunity to hone your soft skills and develop a greater sense of self-awareness.
What Value Can You Contribute in Your Next Job?
Move on with your job hunt and look for other opportunities in the job market. This is a great way to pick yourself up after being retrenched. Remember your strengths such as your wealth of experience and key wins at your last job and weave this into your job search. Use your past experiences as a key selling point in your cover letters and resume. “With your retrenchment, you also have fortitude and resilience to add to your next role,” adds Dr Lim. Remember to update your resume and customise it (and your cover letter) for each company you apply to for a position. Also, make sure that you include keywords that recruiters are looking out for. You can do this by visiting the company’s website and studying its values, then asking yourself how you can make a positive difference and contribute to that company. Try to align your cover letter and resume with the long-term missions and vision of the corporation – this could improve your chances of nailing a job. If asked about why you were retrenched, always be professional and explain the situation with utmost integrity – however, indicate what lessons you have learned from the experience to show that you have the maturity and inner strength.
The thing to remember is that the different emotions experienced are normal. Dealing positively with your emotions lays the foundation for personal growth. Just remember that you can and will get out of this cycle of emotions.
How Long Does the Emotional Ride Last?
The length of time taken to process your emotions will vary. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. This is because there are a number of factors tied to this such as: how attached you were to your role, what you perceive to be your future prospects and so on. The healing process differs from person to person – different people would find comfort in different coping mechanisms.
Dr Lim notes the importance of giving yourself time and adds that the recovery time varies from person to person. “Some take as little as a few days to get over it while some struggle with the emotions for more than a year. The thing to remember is that the different emotions experienced are normal. Dealing positively with your emotions lays the foundation for personal growth. Just remember that you can and will get out of this cycle of emotions. If you feel very overwhelmed by these emotions, don’t hesitate to speak with a qualified counsellor, coach or therapist.”
While coming terms with retrenchment may be difficult, rejection is an inevitable part of life. Remind yourself that one setback does not mean that you are doomed to be at rock bottom for the rest of your life. When one door closes, another will always open. Keep an open mind and an open heart – be receptive to new obstacles and opportunities that will come your way.