Losing a job can be debilitating, whether the reason is a recession or a company’s shifting priorities. For those who took pride in their work or had specific plans for their professional journey, being forced to step away can affect quality of life and mental health. The jab can cut deeper when it comes from employers that use language like “family” to describe their workers in a banal effort to build connections.
Even those who choose to temporarily step away from work for personal reasons can feel a shifting self-perception, and not always for the better. Upon their return, they may feel like they missed out on important milestones or workforce changes.
Technical.ly talked to three local professionals — two of whom asked that we leave out their last names — about what it was like to lose a job or return to work after time way, how they responded, and what they learned from the experience.
‘We’re a family’ — until you’re not
Robert was working as a sales representative for a New York tech company in early 2020 before being laid off by his employer. The industry his company sold into was highly impacted by the pandemic, and within just a few of weeks into the recession, he remembered feeling like his company was in a bad spot. He didn’t immediately realize how bad that spot was.
“We didn’t get any inkling that any of us would lose our job on the sales team,” he said. “One day my manager didn’t come online at work. We thought it was odd, but kept working as normal. Suddenly, a couple of people on Slack were offline and couldn’t have sent messages to them. A couple of team members got on a call and then my sales director called me and said it was a tough decision to lay me off.”
The experience was jarring for Robert, who was surprised because he felt like he had been a strong team member, only to see people less skilled than him keep their jobs. The word “family” had often been used prior to his dismissal at the company, too.
“You think you’re valued at a certain level and find you’re not valued at that level,” he said. “Companies [say] ‘We’re a family,’ but during tough times [I wondered] how much was I really valued.”
Now living in and working remotely from Philly in tech sales, Robert said he wishes he networked better with colleagues at the company that laid him off. In his case, he was closer with his sales manager than his sales director — the person who made the decisions about who to let go — and he wonders if a stronger relationship would have made a difference.
‘It put me in a grind mindset’
Draft King Nation writer Jovan Alford can remember every detail about the March 2019 day he got laid off from his Metro Philadelphia job writing about the city’s pro sports teams. It began like any other day. He woke up, read the edition of the paper he had worked on the day before, and got ready for work — when a phone call from an editor stopped him in his tracks.
“At that point you’re just devastated because it’s something you never prepare for,” he said. “When you feel like you’re doing everything that you need to and still get laid off, it’s a demoralizing feeling. When that happened there, it’s like everything sunk. I still had to go and get my stuff” from the office.
Alford remembered in the weeks prior to his separation from the daily publication that people at Metro publications in other markets were being laid off, but didn’t think much of it at that time. After he got the news himself, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue working in media, where a shrinking industry means jobs are often hard to attain.
Instead, the moment was a turning point for his professional ambitions as a sportswriter and reaffirmed a willingness to put himself out there for job opportunities that he remembered having when he graduated from La Salle University.
“It put me in a grind mindset,” he said. “After you get laid off, you realize you only have unemployment [insurance] for a certain amount of time. It was before the pandemic. Bills got to get paid and rent is due. You got to keep applying and sending cold emails to people about freelancing. You’re going to have moments of doubt and I always come back to the feeling [that] this is what I like to do. For me, it was just all about pushing and hoping for a breakthrough.”
A more distant work life
Purposeful breaks from work can also prove to be disruptive, upon return. So can changing roles within the same industry.
For years, Philly native Adam’s identity was inextricably linked to the work he did as a graphic and web designer. He had been one of the first employees at a New York startup and watched the company grow from less than 10 to 300 employees over a few years. After a certain point, however, he no longer felt the same validation and went to therapy to see what might need to change. Working on himself through therapy proved revelatory, he said. For years, he had enjoyed design work, and a shift into management dimmed that light.
“The work became further from the work itself,” he said. “When you’re a designer, you design the thing and put it out there. But when you manage designers, you help other people do the work. It’s fulfilling to make a great hire, but it felt less fulfilling to me. Being an early employee, I felt like I should have received more acknowledgment.”
In September 2020, Adam had been working for a different New York company focused on social impact for two and a half years when he decided to move back to Philadelphia to take a break and spend more time at home with his newborn son.
(Check out Technical.ly reporter Paige Gross’ December 2020 deep dive into how women, in particular, have long grappled with this choice, and especially during the pandemic.)
“I took a couple of months to spend with [him] and would get back in the game in January,” Adam said on his initial plan. However, “as things got worse with pandemic, I was not comfortable with daycare,” and he decided to stay off the job market until things improved.
Today, Adam works remotely from his Philly home as a designer for a FAANG company (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix or Alphabet, formerly known as Google). While the demand for his technical design skills is high and he didn’t have a difficult time getting hired, the six months he took away for personal reasons has correlated with a massive shift in workplace culture.
“Working in this way is challenging,” he said. “[I’m] used to being in an office. I get a ton of energy working directly with people, while now [I’m] fully remote at a massive company.”
Adam said he doesn’t mind most of his team being on the West Coast and not having to check emails until noon. But he lacks connections to his coworkers, and his onboarding experience paled in comparison to that of previous jobs he had.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.