Retrenchments in Zimbabwe are expected to hit record numbers as a result of economic disruption from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Many employers worldwide have been left with no choice but to reduce staff in order to cut costs and survive.

Zimbabwe is not immune to this as is already seen in the hospitality and entertainment sectors. In response to this predicted wave of retrenchments, this article seeks to give a mental health perspective on how to cope with the loss of income that comes with it.

Dealing with retrenchment or an unexpected loss of income can be both challenging and stressful for many people, causing significant financial and emotional hardship. These can take a serious toll on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing, their relationships, families and how they see their future.

Research shows that job loss can increase the risk of developing anxiety or depression. However, there are steps one can take to regain a sense of control. It is natural to experience a range of emotional reactions in response to an unexpected loss of income or changing circumstances.

Emotional responses to these situations may include shock, distress, anger, guilt, worthlessness etc. For most people, the distress decreases or disappears with time. Common reactions to significant loss due to retrenchment may also include problems getting to sleep or staying asleep, tiredness and fatigue, appetite loss, memory and concentration problems such as forgetfulness or vagueness, feeling overwhelmed, anxious or fearful among bothers.

If a person experiences some of these symptoms over a prolonged period and if that impacts on their life, they could be at risk of developing anxiety or depression. Losing your job or financial security may also trigger symptoms of grief. These include shock and a feeling of numbness, disbelief — “It can’t be real’”, a sense of loss — this can be connected to the job or finances, as well as dreams and plans for the future, confusion and trying to make sense of it – “Why has this happened to me?”

The distress associated with job loss and financial stress can lead to the development of common mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. Learning more about these conditions can help a person to be aware of some of the warning signs. Mental health professionals can help people who are going through difficult times.

It is important to seek support if a person is experiencing severe emotional reactions that persist beyond a normal period of adjustment (usually two or more weeks), an inability to function and carry out day-to-day tasks, use of alcohol or other substances to ”self-medicate” or cope and thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Working through one’s emotions and trying to remain positive will make it easier to cope with the situation. It will also reduce your risk of developing anxiety or depression.

Ways to cope with anxiety and depression caused by retrenchment include writing down your worries – identifying the specific feelings you are experiencing and the concern or worry that may be underlying each of these feelings. Writing these down may help you decide which issues to tackle first. Get support — identify friends and family members you can talk to who will help you remain positive. Manage stress — if you have a pre-existing medical condition that may be aggravated by stress, talk to your doctor to see if there is anything you can do to minimise any negative effects. Stay healthy — try to maintain a balanced diet and get some regular exercise to help boost your mood. Avoid drugs and alcohol. You may be tempted to ”self-medicate” or try to temporarily escape your reality. Not only can drugs and alcohol worsen your emotional state and increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression, they will also place a further drain on your finances.

It is important to note that you are not expected to have all the answers — remind yourself that it’s okay to feel unsure about the future. Be patient with yourself — recovery from any significant loss takes time. Draw on your strengths — try to recall a tough time that you have managed to overcome in the past. Think about what worked then and apply it to your current situation. Try to see the positives — while this is difficult to do when you are in the midst of a crisis, you can try to view this time of uncertainty as an opportunity to re-evaluate your goals and perhaps take on new challenges. Become a volunteer — for many people, the most difficult part of job loss or retrenchment is the loss of contribution and lack of interaction with friends and colleagues in a work environment.

It is important to take care of yourself after retrenchment so that you can provide for others.

While you are looking after yourself, be aware that your family members may also be having a difficult time. A distressing event such as losing a job can contribute to pressure and tension in the family. Try to set aside enough time to participate in regular activities with your family, especially your children as a coping strategy. It is important to respond to this situation as a family.

 Kudakwashe Muchena is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Zimbabwe. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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