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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 1/26/2009 3:07:18 PM ET 2009-01-26T20:07:18

The numbers aren’t even a little bit cheery. The nation’s unemployment rate has jumped to its highest point in 16 years, and more than 2.5 million jobs were lost in 2008. Job losses of that magnitude haven’t been seen since 1945.

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Let me say that again: 1945!

If you’ve been hurt by these upheavals in the economy, you may be dealing with almost unthinkable levels of stress right now. And knowing that you’re not alone in the unemployment boat may not make you feel that much better.

Nevertheless, it’s more important than ever for you to stay as positive, upbeat and focused as possible. As dark as circumstances may seem, it really is possible to triumph over a job loss and end up feeling happier and healthier once you’re on the other side of this experience. Consider these tips for safeguarding your financial and emotional well-being.

1. Push aside feelings of panic. It’s normal and natural to experience a period of grieving after losing a job. But don’t let yourself dwell on one worst-case scenario after another. Instead, recognize that you’re going to survive this, and focus your mind on productive solutions. In fact, the most productive solution you can pursue is to make finding a job your new full-time job. This, of course, requires a considerable amount of stamina and optimism, and that’s why it’s so important to check your mental outlook before taking any other steps.

2. Network like you’ve never networked before. It’s always easier to find a job if you know someone on the inside. Reflect on all the friends, colleagues and contacts you’ve ever made in your industry, and start reaching out to them in a friendly, not-too-pushy-or-desperate way. Let them know you’re looking for work and ask them whether they know of any openings. If you’re willing to move, mention that detail as well. (Note: At times like these, it often pays to be willing to move.)

If, though, your entire industry is imploding on you — think banking, journalism and real estate — and jobs are so scarce that your network simply isn’t providing you with many leads, then it may be time to start looking for jobs in related fields that rely heavily on the skills you possess. For example, if you’ve worked in the finance sector for years but you’re having trouble finding a job now, do you know of any former colleagues who made the leap to positions that allow them to work with numbers for entirely different kinds of employers? Or if you’re an out-of-work journalist, can you use your strong writing, editing and research skills to help any number of organizations, businesses and agencies out there? Or if you’re considering transitioning out of real estate, can you think of other areas where you could apply your fabulous sales and negotiation skills?

The idea of switching careers altogether might sound horrible to you at first, but the point is that it’s important to brainstorm and think as creatively as possible about all the different fields that might be able to use your special skills. It’s also important to think of every person you know who has ever made a successful transition to a new kind of employment — and then reach out to all of them for advice, insights and job leads.

3. Examine industry data. Especially if you may have to shift career fields, study occupational data so you can find out which sectors are actually hiring right now. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook can help you learn about job sectors that may be crying out for your specific skills. CareerBuilder.com also has published a hiring forecast for 2009 that could be extremely helpful for you. You can download it as a PDF by clicking here.

Video: Jim Cramer’s financial tips

4. Remember how much you have to offer. Negative thinking and speaking can hurt your job search. For instance, if you’re an older worker, are you viewing yourself as experienced and knowledgeable, or just old? Most employers want to hire energetic, positive people. Rather than giving off an air of desperation on job interviews, be confident about ways you can help the employer succeed. Build yourself up by focusing on your many strengths and past successes. That way your overall message will be “Here’s how I’m able to help you” — not “Do you want me? Please?”

5. Don’t turn up your nose too easily. If you’ve lost your job as a white-collar worker, you can harm your chances of finding employment if you’re only willing to seek out the exact same type of work or the exact same pay. Consider working for smaller companies, and don’t view service-sector or blue-collar work as beneath you — especially if money is very tight. After all, no job has to last forever — and some jobs can be done on a part-time or temporary basis while you keep looking for a more permanent position.

6. Stay on high alert for stopgap measures. If your employer is letting you go because it can no longer afford to support so many full-time employees with benefits, ask whether you might be able to continue working part time without benefits for the same employer. Or, if your employer and other companies in your career field frequently rely on independent contractors to handle certain jobs, consider becoming one of those independent contractors for a time. Both of these approaches could help you keep at least some money coming in while you search for a new full-time job. And here’s an interesting side note: If you already have health insurance and other benefits through your significant other’s job, you might just grow to love being an independent contractor or a part-time employee so much that you’ll do whatever it takes to stay on that path.

7. Reduce your spending right away. Now is the time to focus on food, shelter — and your job search. Monitor your expenses for a few weeks or a month so you can see where you can cut back during this crunch time. As you do this, though, take care not to eliminate all forms of recreation from your life. You need such outlets to maintain perspective and a positive outlook. View it as a challenge to find fun things to do for little dough, such as low-priced matinee movies, great happy-hour or early-bird specials, or free walks, hikes and bike rides in places you love.

8. Be extremely careful with your use of credit. Especially during a period of unemployment, a credit card can keep you in denial about your true financial condition and can greatly exacerbate your anxiety levels in the long run. In fact, this might be an excellent time to contact all of your creditors and talk with them about coming up with temporarily reduced payment plans until you find another job. Many lenders are likely to cooperate because missed payments aren’t good for anyone involved.

9. Visit the unemployment office. You may feel reluctant to collect unemployment benefits, but you are entitled to get help through this form of insurance. Would you turn down medical benefits you had coming your way? Probably not. In like manner, don’t turn down this form of help when you really need it. Also, be sure to make the most of any and all severance benefits you can possibly receive.

10. Preserve your self-esteem. The economic crisis gripping the country right now is not your fault. All sorts of workers are losing their jobs for reasons that are utterly beyond their control. Recognize that your time out of a job is a fantastic opportunity to begin exercising — a step that will benefit your frame of mind tremendously. It’s also an ideal time to reflect on your past employment choices and set new goals that may be better and healthier for you. You could even consider turning what you do for a living into your own business so you can be your own boss. Before you know it, you may be thanking your former employer for letting you go.

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