How to Get Back to Work After Long-Term Unemployment

Katie McBeth
How to Get Back to Work After Long-Term Unemployment
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Unemployment is not an easy time for anyone — and anyone who says differently has most likely never lived through it. As you may well know, being unemployed is stressful, tiring, and disheartening.

In fact, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is simply getting back to work. Additionally, the longer you remain unemployed, the harder it can be to find a job and transition back to the working world.

If you’ve found yourself struggling, know that you’re not alone. Getting back to work can be extremely difficult, but if you follow the right steps and have all the right material, you can eventually bring your unemployment to an end.

Let’s discuss what it means to go through long term unemployment, why it can be so hard to break out of, and what you might need to break the curse.

Defining Long Term Unemployment

Long term unemployment is defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as being unemployed and actively looking for work for over 27 weeks. There are variations to long term unemployment, and BLS breaks them down as: 27 week unemployed, 52 weeks unemployed, and 99 week unemployed or longer. After the 2008 recession, the unemployment rate skyrocketed, and many of those who were laid off from their job remained unemployed for well over 27 weeks.

However, the number of people who are struggling with long term unemployment has steadily decreased over the years. As BLS highlighted in a 2015 study, about 31.6 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits were unemployed for at least 27 weeks, while 22.6 percent were unemployed for over 52 weeks, and 11.1 percent were unemployed for 99 or more weeks. Prior to the recession, in 2007 those numbers were 16, 9, and 3 percent, respectively. Although the numbers are steadily going down, it could be some time before we return to that pre-recession low.

The Effects of Long Term Unemployment

Long term unemployment can be tricky. Not only are you struggling to find a job and maintain a positive outlook on your prospects, but you’re also left balancing bills, mortgage payments, and other financial issues while only receiving a fraction of your original wages through unemployment benefits. Additionally, some people aren’t able to collect unemployment, or might lose their benefits if they’re unemployed for over 26 weeks (depending on your local laws), leaving you without any form of income. This has the potential to dry up your savings or damage your credit score if you can’t make payments on your loans.

Financial struggles tend to be the most common issue for those that are unemployed, but there is also a heavy psychological toll that many workers take after experiencing a sudden job loss. There are plenty of stories online about people that lost their jobs during the recession, and then feared returning to work and being laid off again, despite doing well at their new job. The Wall Street Journal discussed these bad side effects in a 2010 piece on returning to work:

“Persistent ill effects include damaged self-esteem, fears about repeating job mistakes, concentration difficulties and insomnia. ‘All those things are detrimental to performance on the new job,’ says John P. Wilson, a psychology professor at Cleveland State University. ‘Stress-related symptoms from being unemployed will carry over into the new job for a significant number of people.’”

And although everyone experiences “new job jitters” after being hired, for those that were unemployed for some time, the jitters can manifest into imposter syndrome. You may start questioning your qualifications, or wondering if you are really worthy of a job.

However, there are ways to work your mind out of that funk. To start, you can think of all the accomplishments you’ve had in your career. What awards have you won? What has your boss had to say about your strengths in the past, and how have you overcome past adversities? Get comfortable recounting those accomplishments so you can bring them up in an interview. Let yourself relive the glory and pride of those moments, and remember that bad days and rejections may be in your future, but that doesn’t mean you’re unqualified to apply.

Overcoming imposter syndrome can take time, but it shouldn’t stop you from seeking out a job that is worthy of your talents and hard work. Once you can break out of long term unemployment, you can prove to your new boss (and yourself) just how valuable you really are.

What You Need to Get Back to Work

Job hunting while unemployed can be a tiring process. It is easy to lose track of your schedule, or forget who you need to follow up with after having an interview.

The most important thing you will want to do while job hunting is making sure you’re staying organized. Keep a daily planner of all the people you need to call in the future, and make notes of who you’ve contacted for employment, or who you hope to apply for in the future. Staying organized through this process will help in multiple ways:

  1. You’ll be able to accurately report your job search results to your state’s department of labor if you’re filing for unemployment benefits. Additionally, if there are any disputes about the accuracy of your claim, you can refer back to your records.
  2. You can keep all your important documents — such as your resume, any cover letters, and other paperwork — on hand and up to date.

Organizing your paperwork and schedule is a good way to stay on top of your job hunting process. However, staying organized won’t guarantee you a job. There’s still the important step of catching the attention of hiring managers and getting an interview. Here are some tips to making yourself more appealing to hiring managers:

  • Make sure your resume is professional, up-to-date and accurate, and displays a concise list of your most recent jobs. Additionally, make sure you include a list of professional references that can attest to your excellent work ethic, and make sure those references are aware that they may be receiving calls.
  • Network with your past coworkers, friends, or college alumni. Many job offices will prioritize hiring people that come recommended from within the office over those that simply bring in a resume or apply. If someone you know is working for a company in your field, ask them if their company is planning to hire anytime soon.
  • Create a LinkedIn to attract recruiters, and to create a profession social media presence. Many jobs rely on LinkedIn to see more about your job accolades, skills, references, and what other people have to say about working with you. Make sure your entire LinkedIn account is completed to get the best results. Additionally, you can join “groups” in LinkedIn that can help you find new people to network with, and potentially new opportunities for a job position within your industry.
  • Be prepared to talk with your interviewer about why you were let go from your last company. You don’t have to divulge sensitive information, but you should be honest and straightforward about the reasons.

Additionally, you will want to be prepared to end all your unemployment benefits once you do land a job. This could be anything from unemployment checks to disability or SNAP (food stamps) benefits. Hopefully with your new job, you’ll be able to quickly get back on your feet and be financially independent again.

Explaining Gaps in Employment

One of the trickiest questions to answer while interviewing for a job will be explaining your gap in employment. Most interviewers will ask this question to get a better idea of what drives you, and how this slump in your career trajectory defines your motivations. Interviewers are interested in ambitious workers, not those that show a tendency to remain stagnant in their careers.

Unfortunately, having a big gap in your employment history can appear as if you’d had a lack of progression in your career. However, if you are truthful, honest, and acknowledge the gap in your history up-front, you can manage to save your own reputation; even before you land an interview. This means you’ll want to include an explanation in your resume (and on your LinkedIn account) as to why there may be a gap.

Bronwen Hann, a niche recruiter that shared her expertise with LinkedIn, offered this bit of advice in explaining gaps in your employment history:

  • Emphasize why you were let go from your previous job. Where they downsizing? Where they hit hard by an economic crash? Indicate this in your resume to help recruiters see the “story” behind your career change. If you were terminated from your previous job, you can acknowledge that you went separate ways, or that it didn’t work out and was out of your hands.
  • When discussing what happened between you and your previous job, be positive about it. Even if you left in a fury, recruiters don’t want to hear about how much you hated your last boss. That will come off as you hating authority, or being disagreeable. Instead, be positive and cordial about your last employer.
  • If you left your job voluntarily, don’t be afraid to explain the reason behind your departure. Recruiters can be sympathetic to your situation if you explain: even if you did it to travel, go back to school, or even to help take care of an ailing family member.
  • Most importantly, be honest about why you left. Don’t lie about being let go if you were fired (recruiters will most likely call your previous employer for a reference). The way you respond to the challenge of being unemployed will help recruiters understand how you handle adversity.
  • Lastly, Hann recommends emphasizing any extra activities you might have done while applying to new jobs. Did you do some freelancing or contracted work in your down time? Did you earn any certificates, or take any college-level classes? Did you volunteer at all? If none of these apply to you, Hann recommends simply waiting for an interview so you can have a chance to explain yourself. Make sure you practice how you will respond to the question, and do your best to show your interest in growing and creating a forward trajectory for your career.

Returning to Work

Getting back to work after experiencing a long bout of unemployment can be extremely difficult. Outside of the financial struggles you might experience, your ego may be shattered as well. Taking these steps can make the search for a new job a little easier, but it will still be a challenging time.

However, this period of challenges will help shape your future. Remember that it is failure that is your greatest teacher, not success. Let this difficult part of your career prepare you for the next (more rewarding) step. Through perseverance and patience, you will be able to return to the workforce soon enough, and this momentary setback will not define your entire career. It will only be a small chapter in your overall story.

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