Our work provides much more than just the way we make a living. Work provides structure, purpose, social support and meaning. Work also influences the way we see ourselves.  

As a GP I see many patients who are unemployed and experiencing a mental health issue. Regardless of which came first, the common scenario is a vicious circle where one is feeling bad about not having a job, and at the same time experiencing low self-esteem and mental health symptoms that make it that much harder to find a job.

Not having a job can also impact on someone’s sense of identity, financial situation, weekly routine, and social participation. For some people this leads to problems such as withdrawing from day to day activities, use of drugs or alcohol and generally not looking after their health.

So, what are some ways that people who are unemployed can look after their health when seeking out a new job?

Be kind to yourself. It’s useful to challenge negative self-talk, such as ‘it’s all my fault I don’t have a job’, ‘nobody is going to want to employ me’, or ‘what’s the point in even trying!’ Psychologists recognise that this sort of self-defeating talk doesn’t help, and an important first step is to start challenging this negative way of thinking.

Keep a regular daily routine. When you no longer have a job to report to every day, you can easily lose momentum. Consider your job seeking a job in itself, with a daily ‘start’ and ‘end’ time. Try to incorporate regular times for exercise and networking. Following a set schedule will help you be more productive and maintain a healthy rhythm to your week.

Create a job search plan. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the prospect of job hunting. Try breaking big goals into small, manageable tasks. Set some priorities, such as revising your resume, seeking out different references and designate times to monitor job websites.

Stay healthy. The saying ‘a healthy mind lives in a healthy body’ is especially true if you’re going through a period of unemployment. Keep up the regular exercise, eat well, and if you have a health issue, go along to the GP to sort it out before it becomes more serious.

Remind yourself about your positives. When unemployed, you can focus on your deficiencies so it’s important to remind yourself about your positive attributes. Write down a list of all the moments when you succeeded, or been really proud of a project that you’ve been involved in. List your skills and positive personality traits, and the people who you have supported and helped over the years. It’s a good time to look back at this list regularly and remind yourself about the positive traits that encompass you.

Find activities that give your life ‘meaning.’ Of course, a big part of work is earning money, but for many of us it also gives us a strong sense of meaning and connection to others. You don’t have to wait until you get a job to start enjoying some of the benefits of meaningful engagement through volunteering, taking up hobbies or learning something new. You might consider joining a local club, charitable group or getting involved in community activities.

Focus on the things you can control. Although it’s a bit of a cliché, try to focus your energy on the things you can actually control. You can’t control how quickly or whether an employer decides to employ you. But you can focus on tidying up your resume, upskilling yourself, submitting job applications and expanding your networks. Set your own standards of success (for example, ‘I successfully applied for ten jobs this week’).

Know when to get more assistance. If you’re experiencing a persistent low mood for more than two weeks, or overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, seek professional support. You an start by contacting the Beyond Blue support line on 1300 22 46 36 or taking the K10 checklist. If you’re experiencing more severe mental health symptoms, it might be a good time to talk to your local GP or even get referred to a mental health specialist.

Beyond Blue’s booklet on taking care of yourself after retrenchment or financial loss is full of practical tips. You can also check out the Beyond Blue forums where you'll find useful information from others going through a similar situation to yours.

Related reading: What I’ve learnt about resilience

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