As uncertainty hangs over the U.S. economy, the news this year has been peppered with announcements of layoffs: hundreds at McDonald’s, 8,000 at Salesforce, 10,000 at Microsoft, 18,000 at Amazon, and the list goes on.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story — behind each of these data points are people whose lives have been upended. Their job losses can lead to devastating disruptions to not only their personal finances but also their personal identities.

Research suggests that we Americans rely heavily on our work identities for our feelings of positive self-worth. A lost job, therefore, means the loss of not only employment but also other aspects of life that contribute to our self-worth. We might lose financial stability, social standing, roles within the family, previously planned events, support structures and friends connected with the employment.

Additional research suggests that the grief following a job loss is similar to the grief we feel when we lose a loved one. To make matters worse, those who lose a job are forced to relive that grief when they have to tell us — their family, friends, former colleagues and potential employers — the story of their job loss. How we respond to those stories can make a difference in a person’s ability to successfully move on.

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We all fall prey to our cognitive biases, one of which is the fundamental attribution error. This means, in short, that we are quick to explain our own behavior by pointing out the external factors that led to our failures or mistakes. However, we explain others’ failures by attributing them to internal character flaws.

Unfortunately, we naturally tend to stigmatize those who lose jobs by assuming that there must be something wrong with them. In our research, we have spoken with many people about their job loss stories. Based on their experiences, we learn how this stigma can be perpetuated in our conversations:

  • Comparing the person to others who are working and seem more successful.
  • Expressing disappointment in the person.
  • Questioning why the person isn’t working despite efforts to find a job or gain more education.
  • Panicking and giving up hope.
  • Offering general platitudes or “you should” statements.
  • Letting the job loss dominate all conversation.
  • Expressing doubt that the reason for the job loss really was something out of the person’s control.

The truth is that there are usually external (out of a person’s control) and internal (in a person’s control) reasons for a job loss. If people identify only the internal reasons or are unable to move past them, they will have a harder time telling their story to us or to potential employers. Alternatively, if people can identify or be helped to identify the external reasons for their job loss, they will have an easier time telling their story to us and others, and will be able to move forward.

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In our research, we’ve found three story types that communicate a job loss and push back against the social stigma:

  • Stories that frame the reason for the job loss as external to the person (e.g., a downturn in the economy).
  • Stories that frame the job loss as an opportunity (e.g., a chance to change career tracks or to gain more education).
  • Stories that frame the internal reason as being overcome (e.g., learning from a mistake).

As family, friends and former colleagues of those who experience job loss, we can help them develop these stories. In our conversations, we can reaffirm confidence in the person, support them in their efforts to find new work or gain more education, express confidence that things will work out, provide concrete and personalized job-search assistance, help them realize that their identity doesn’t hinge upon their occupation or employment status, and validate or help them identify the external reasons for their job loss.

In sum, when people close to us lose a job and reach out for help, we can push back against the social stigma that something must be wrong with them by supporting them and by helping them develop stories that reaffirm their value to us and to society.

Matthew J. Baker is an assistant professor of editing and publishing at Brigham Young University. Rachel Murdock is an associate professor of communication at Des Moines Area Community College.