Surviving the Downturn Laid-Back Layoffs

By Crystal Yednak

Oct. 7, 2008

D uring the summer, Michael Bugielski got the call from the office that no one wants: His territory as a sales representative with a European medical equipment company was being dissolved—along with his position.

    Bugielski dove deep—going to Canada and spending a few days scuba diving through the wreckage of ships that had sunk more than 100 years ago. Back home, he signed up for a nine-week acting class and is finishing his certification to become a rescue diver. Focusing on unexplored interests is part of an effort to keep his mind off darker thoughts and worries.

    “I don’t want to lose my sanity. I want to keep my mind and body as active as possible,” he says. “If I go after those things I have passion about, eventually something will come together. I have a better outlook as opposed to the throw-my-résumé-everywhere approach.”

    With jobs hard to come by right now, some laid-off workers find it makes little sense to get frantic about the employment search.

    Of course, some of the people in their lives may not agree. Bugielski hears the sigh in his mother’s voice because he’s not going downtown every day to apply for jobs in person.

    “The older crowd, like my parents, look at me and feel the way to do it is to wear my suit every day, drive downtown, pay $7,000 in parking and walk from place to place saying, ‘Here’s my résumé,’ ” says Bugielski, 40.

    He says his wife and sisters understand how dejected one can feel after sending out batches of résumés and not receiving any responses. And though he’s taking steps to find his next job, knowing that his savings and his wife’s income as a physical therapist won’t tide the couple over forever, he doesn’t feel guilty about letting his mind wander to other interests, too.

    Pursuing a new hobby or interest during a layoff can be wonderfully distracting—just as long as it doesn’t derail a job search entirely, says Barry Zweibel, an executive/life coach who is president of Northbrook, Illinois-based GottaGettaCoach.

    It’s essential to take care of yourself during transitional periods, he says, because it’s easy to become negative and start feeling like a victim.

    “You need to depersonalize [the layoff] and have it be about something that happened out there, rather than something that happened to your inner core,” he says.

    Emotionally, people push through many cycles after a job loss.

    “Initially, there’s good energy after you get over that first hump,” Zweibel says. “As time goes on, it does get frustrating, it wears away at you. As a wave hits bottom, it comes back up again, then it’s time to renew the efforts, reconnect to the enthusiasm. Sometimes it takes quite a few waves until a job is landed.”

    However, he says, at some point the “I’m just taking a little time off” approach begins to look a lot like denial. “If your spouse starts to get cranky with you, if you notice you’re starting to get cranky or bored by what’s going on … that would probably be an indicator,” he says.

    When Steve DePeder, 48, of Downers Grove, Illinois, was laid off from his account manager position with a small software company in 1999, he threw himself into renovation projects at his family’s 1886 farmhouse. For six months, as he knocked down walls and sanded molding, his mind was stuck on one thought: “I can’t believe I’m unemployed.”

    He had been a decent saver, and the family—he’s a father of two—tightened its belt.

    His wife kept assuring him he would know when he found the right thing. But he was a client of Zweibel’s and recalls the coach pointing out that he was pouring all his effort into the house instead of his job search.

    “I said, ‘It’s my therapy, and I’m not going to sweat it,’ ” DePeder says.

    After about a year, he landed a similar job with a midsize software company. But four years later, on his way to catch a flight for a business trip, he got word that his job was being eliminated.

    This time, he realized quickly what he wanted to do: Rather than send hundreds of résumés to e-mail addresses and get no replies, he changed careers. After a few more months working on his own house, he decided to join his brother-in-law in starting a business rehabbing and renting homes, something he knew he had wanted to do from his previous period of unemployment.

    In the office, the technology improvements he worked on so hard seemed intangible: “You couldn’t touch it, feel it or see it,” he says. “But I could remove a door and put a new door up and see a difference. I could rip a wall out and build a new wall and see a difference. It was that hands-on ‘look what I did today.’ “

    Kathleen Ameche, 49, had been climbing the corporate ladder since college before being laid off almost five years ago as chief information officer of Chicago-based Tribune Co. when her position was eliminated in the merger with Times Mirror Co.

    She says she was in shock. “It was the first time since I was 16 that I wasn’t working,” she says.

    As she tried to figure out the next step, her husband reminded her that she had always talked about writing a book. She decided the forced break from corporate life might be her only chance to do it and had the cushion of a severance package, savings and her husband’s income as a real estate developer and attorney.

    She took 18 months to write a guide for women business travelers, a subject she’d developed plenty of opinions about during years on the road as a consultant. Typing away on her laptop at the DePaul University library, she did feel guilty at times, wondering if she should be working harder to get back on her career path.

    But the first edition of “The Woman Road Warrior” was published in 2005 and sold well among business travelers. More important, she felt that she had used her break from being a “right-brain technologist” well.

    “This is something I had talked about for 25 years and I did it,” says Ameche, who is now an executive for RightPoint Consulting, a Chicago-based technology firm.

    Chris Kerstein, 27, rode out the short period after his layoff on a sailboat.

    Kerstein’s job at Scudder Investments in Chicago, along with those of his co-workers, was eliminated in 2006 during a restructuring after the firm was bought out. Around the same time, a friend bought a Tartan 10 sailboat and was looking for someone to sail across Lake Michigan with.

    “You get laid off, and it’s kind of demoralizing, even if it’s 120 people and it has nothing to do with you,” he says. “You do feel rejected, and to get out there and look for jobs immediately—you kind of feel like you want to take a break.”

    He and his friend took a two-week trip across the lake and spent summer days racing or sailing while living on his severance package. Eventually, he began searching for jobs and had a new one within five months.

    Now a project manager at Chicago-based Northern Trust Co., Kerstein says sailing kept his head straight during his break from work.

    “You’re pretty much just playing around on this expensive toy,” he says, “but because you’re pulling lines and moving, you feel like you accomplished something for the day.”

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