Chances are high you probably know somebody right now facing the tough situation of having lost a job—or maybe you’re dealing with that struggle yourself. At the height of the pandemic in late May, almost 40 million Americans had claimed unemployment benefits. And according to a survey from the Pew Research Center published on Sept. 24, half of Americans who lost their job during the pandemic still don’t have one. We all know losing a job can set off a constellation of emotional and practical challenges, and if you know someone in that position, you likely want to offer words that comfort and heal. But according to relationship and employment experts, some of your attempts may be falling short. It turns out, the worst thing you can say to someone who lost their job is an “at least” statement, like “At least you can collect unemployment,” “At least your spouse still has a job,” “At least you have your health,” and so on.
While these may all be true, phrases like these can diminish and invalidate the experience and feelings of someone who lost their job. “These statements can minimize the loss and shock that this person may be experiencing, and they may also be struggling with self-worth issues regarding losing a job,” explains licensed professional counselor Hannah Dorsher of Hannah Dorsher Counseling. “This can be very traumatic for people, especially if they find a sense of identity in their work.”
So, what’s a better alternative? “It would be more appropriate to say something empathetic like, ‘I understand how you feel,’ or even just, ‘I don’t know what to say but I’m so glad you told me,'” says Felicia Broccoli with The Life Coach School, noting that “empathy drives connection.”
Want to make sure you’re not saying something else offensive? Read on for more expert-backed tips on what not to say to someone who just lost their job. And for more on what not to say in these tough times, check out This Is the Worst Thing You Could Say to Someone Who’s Grieving.
Trying to spin job loss into a positive right away is a missed opportunity to acknowledge and validate feelings.
“Someone who has recently or suddenly lost their job may not be ready to look for the silver lining in such a negative experience,” explains therapist Laura Richer of Anchor Light Therapy Collective. “They may be experiencing fear about their finances, suffering a blow to their sense of self-worth or identity, or be facing obstacles that may make it difficult for them to find work in the future.”
Beyond that, losing a job is only “downtime” in the way that parental leave is a breezy holiday. (In other words: It’s simply not.) “Pretending that losing a job is a vacation or a chance to get caught up on household chores trivializes their experience. It can also invalidate the fear or sense of grief and loss they are experiencing,” Richer says. “Instead of trying to make this a positive experience when it is not, offer them words of encouragement and validate the feelings they are currently experiencing.” And for more words of encouragement to consider for yourself and others, here are some Super Effective Positive Affirmations You Can Use Every Day.
Just because someone complained about their job doesn’t mean they really hated it. And even if they did hate it, it doesn’t mean they could afford to lose it—or that they’re not hurting as a result of being let go.
“Losing a job right now is a very frightening prospect,” says clinical and organizational psychologist Nicole Lipkin, the CEO of Equilibria Leadership Consulting. “Using someone’s past complaints about their job can shut down the conversation. The person is now in the position of defending their unhappiness. Instead, open up the conversation by empathizing and helping them think through a plan of action.” And if you or someone you know is looking for new opportunities, here are some Remote Jobs You Didn’t Know Existed.
This is a common response, and it seems like a reassuring sentiment—but no matter how well-meaning it is, it’s ultimately unhelpful. “Unless you have a magic ball, you can’t predict this, and chances are, they’re feeling really worried about what the future holds,” explains licensed professional counselor Leah Rockwell, founder of Rockwell Wellness Counseling. “Our professions are often entangled with their identities, and job loss can bring up big existential questions. To be helpful, keep it present focused. Offer your empathy for their experience, followed by an offer that you are there for them to listen as they process this major transition.” And for more messages to avoid when your friend is struggling, learn The One Word You Should Never Say to Someone With Anxiety.
Statements along these lines, “imply that either the person or their work is nonessential and/or does not add enough value to be retained, which could make the person feel worse,” explains Kate Gigax, CEO of the leadership development and coaching firm Development Corps. Even if a person’s work was not directly connected to the company’s output or its bottom line, everyone wants to feel their work makes an important—even essential—contribution to the team. Therefore, Gigax explains, “A more appropriate response is: ‘It’s their loss.'” And for more updates on how to navigate day-to-day life and all the challenges that come with it, sign up for our daily newsletter.