Mental Health and the Job Hunt: Strategies for Coping
Michael and I have known each other for pretty much my entire career. I met Natalie, his wife, while we both worked at the capitol in 2009 and though he and I were introduced at that time we only really gravitated to the same professional/personal circle within the last 4 years or so. And did we ever. I feel like I see Michael once a week at some event or board meeting, so we get the chance to do the brief bro check-in probably about as often as we would all like to with our other guy friends, but always seem to run out of time in the week.
Michael is ambitious, hard-working, etc... etc... but that describes my whole friend circle. What sets him apart to me is that he is one of the most genuine, down-to-earth guys you'll know. For someone who works in politics, it is extremely refreshing to be able to sit down with someone and have an honest conversation without any real or opaque motives behind it. This post is just one example of how Michael is willing to talk openly about things that most other people will push aside and bury down deep. I always appreciate his openness and honesty, and I'm sure you will too. -Andy
Mental Health and the Job Hunt: Strategies for Coping
by Michael Choate
My daughter was born on June 19, 2016. After my wife went back to work, I took another two weeks off so I could have time to bond with my new daughter one-on-one. I had no idea that the Sunday before I went back to work I would have a close to complete emotional break. I know that this is not news to new mothers who have to return to their careers after maternity leave, but I did not want to go back to work…at least not back to the job I had – a comfortable and lucrative energy law practice. I wanted more, and it was not more money.
I wanted more meaning – something that would better align my everyday work with my values. So that night, I decided I was going to start looking for a new career.
My wife's response was chilly at best. She didn’t get it and I don’t blame her. Why would I leave a firm that was so good to me for so long, that had given me my start as an attorney to pursue something else? And the better question was, what was that something else? I had opaque notions of what I wanted to do, but no idea how to make that shift.
I turned into an exploratory committee of one. Over the course of two and a half years I met with countless decision makers and influencers in the realms of politics, policy, natural resources, alternative energy and political advocacy. I was looking for insight into their worlds and how I could fit myself into them. I met with CEOs and hustlers alike looking for even the smallest insight into my very big questions. It was truly exhausting.
After two and a half grueling years of pounding the pavement, talking to anyone who would listen, revising my resume, and about a hundred cover letters (not a hyperbole), I finally landed a job as the Policy Director for the South-Central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource (SPEER).
Sure, I can wax poetic on the nature of a midcareer industry change and the next-level networking and hustle required, but more importantly, I’d prefer to shine a light on something few people who have not experienced this process first hand tend to think about – mental health during extended job hunts.
I believe that there are three factors that can keep a person healthy mentally, emotionally, and physically, during a brutal job hunt.
Support Group: Individuals that are interested in YOU
It goes without saying that a supportive partner, should you be so lucky to have one, is incredibly valuable in a job hunt. My wife was AMAZING. She offered a shoulder and a kick in the ass at the appropriate times, and it kept me focused and moving forward. However, it is equally important to find people outside of your family that are interested in YOU. These people, I will call them your cadre, will be interested in not only your professional aspirations, but how you are doing mentally, physically, and emotionally. They can offer an objective opinion that is not affected by emotional, or even romantic attachments.
I would suggest you meet with each member of your cadre separately, but regularly in order to check in, brainstorm, and reassess your process if necessary. I personally have a cadre of about 3-4 people at any given time that I will share drinks or lunch with. These are people who generally work in the area I want to work in, so they are able to help make connections, give job search advice, and make suggestions on what else I should be doing to advance my search and my career. Further, my cadre are all good friends that I have known for years, so the relationship is not purely professional.
This deeper friendship allowed me at times to unload, vent, yell, or voice any and all frustrations I had with my search without feeling awkward. It is important to remember, however, that the main focus of your cadre should be your mental, physical, and emotional support, so it is not absolutely necessary they work in your same industry.
One must remember that there is a responsibility that comes with forming a cadre. Just as they supported you, when the time comes, you must support them when it is their turn to make a move, no questions asked. The best part about this “payback” will be that you will get just as much out of it as you put in.
Self-Care: Recharge and reload.
A job hunt and potential career change can be a long slog filled with rejection and heartache. While it is absolutely necessary to properly process and confront these potentially emotional events, it is equally important to make sure that you are taking care of yourself. It is easy to get down in a rut of self-doubt and disappointment, but you need to continue the things outside of your career that make you happy, and that keep you focused and present.
I will be the first to confess that I did not do a good job of this in the beginning. I was constantly in my own head, reevaluating what I had done wrong in the previous interview, or what I failed to put in my last cover letter and my home life suffered for it. The first two and a half years of my daughter’s life was clouded by my quest to change careers. It was not fair to my family, it was not fair to me.
What was it you did for fun or to blow off steam when you still enjoyed what you were doing? Yoga? Music? Running? A job hunt or career change may mean you need to approach these activities from a different angle. They may not be “just for fun” anymore. Instead they will become a technique that you use to drag yourself out of your own head, and help you process what you are feeling.
For example, my self-care regimen included putting on loud, fast, angry music, running or working out at a rather intense level, and then relaxing in a sauna at the gym. When I got home, I felt a sense of clarity and calm. I think the naturally released endorphins played a big role, but the ability to almost beat the bad thoughts out of my head was very helpful.
Now, when blowing off steam, there is absolutely a place for going and getting drinks with friends. Alcohol in moderation while you search can be calming and helpful. However, please be careful that the alcohol does not become a crutch or an escape and listen to those who love you. If your loved ones start to see a problem, it is important that you reassess and get help if necessary. Your loved ones love you, and they just want to see you happy and healthy.
Career Coach/Therapist: The neutral neutral third party
A few months into my job hunt, I realized that I needed more support – both from a mental standpoint and a strategic standpoint. The rigors of the hunt were taking a great toll on me mentally, so I sought out a therapist who could help me work through some of the psychological hurdles while helping me attack my job hunt in a strategic way. I found a therapist/career coach that really helped fill in the holes that my cadre and self-care could not fill.
I’m a big proponent of talk therapy for a whole host of reasons, but if you think this is an option for you, I urge you to pursue it. With the stigma towards talk therapy and mental illness continuing to wane, it is no longer something that you need to keep hidden away or repressed.
Sometimes, there are burdens too heavy to lift on your own, be it the job hunt or any other major life change. In those instances, please do not hesitate to get help. Reach out to your family, your cadre, your friends. I can speak from experience that a job hunt and career change that took over 2 and a half years to complete can take a lot out of you.
The grind can be brutal and demoralizing. Don’t grind alone.
Disclaimer: I am not a trained therapist or mental health professional. This article is based on my own experience and is not based on any research academic, scientific, or otherwise. If you start to feel hopeless, like there is no way out, please reach out to someone or anonymously call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, everyday.