Economy, Health, Lifestyle

The unexpected psychological effects of unemployment

The unemployment figures in Spain continue to explode. According to the Encuesta de Población Activa (EPA or Active Population Poll), in January this year the number of people unemployed exceeded 5 million, or 22.85% of the population able and willing to work.

Alejandra Rodríguez

This high level of unemployment is bringing serious economic consequences for Spanish families, who are beginning to be unable to pay their bills, or even to afford their living expenses until the end of the month.

But what the statistics don’t show are the psychological effects which unemployment brings with it. José Buendia is a psychologist and international coordinator of a group undertaking an analysis of the psychological effects of unemployment.

According to Buendia, when the period of unemployment continues the individual suffers stress and can begin to have serious health problems.

He talks with The Prisma about this and other questions.

In your book  “El Impacto psicológico del desempleo” (The psychological effects of unemployment), you maintain that loss of work can bring with it psychological problems for the individual.

Unemployment produces a deterioration of social status and this can affect the self-esteem of the person. If it is long-lasting it can even produce definite health problems, like mental disturbances or depression, but also heart attacks, and now there are even studies linking stress with cancer.

You talk about the duration, is that critical?

Definitely. The person goes through several phases from when they lose their job. At first they feel perplexed and go into a period of ‘shock’ that usually lasts about a week.

That is followed by a phase of slight recovery when they typically feel unrealistically optimistic: they look for work, but are not worried when they don’t find any. They take the opportunity to spend their time doing repairs at home or with their hobbies. The person just treats it like a temporary holiday period.

Until reality intrudes  . . .

When they have already been out of work for a long time a feeling of dread appears. They feel a sense of failure in the search for work. They begin to be pessimistic, to feel anxious, with periods of gloom, irritability and in many cases psychosomatic disturbances appear. This phase is crucial and may last several months. Finally a new phase takes over in which they accept being one of the unemployed as part of their identity.

Unemployed is an identity?

Work is what identifies you as an individual in our society. We define ourselves by the job we do, and when someone loses their work they become confused.

Which group is most affected by this situation?

The most vulnerable are men aged between 26 and 35, men because they feel themselves responsible for supporting their family.

As for age, while you are young or studying, you somehow justify your situation of not being in work. But as soon as you finish your course you are on the edge of a precipice. I have some students who are looking for work in hotels, and they have even had to hide their degree studies because some employers prefer untrained staff. Others, the best researchers, are going abroad.

Is the unemployed person accepted socially?

Photo by Graham Douglas

No. An unemployed person counts for nothing in this society which only values productivity. In other societies and at other times, if someone was in great need they turned to a neighbour. Not now, they hide their situation, pride and shame stops them from asking for help. It is what is known as the invisibility syndrome.

Unemployed people feel themselves invisible?

When someone is a victim of this syndrome, the problem is not that others maltreat them but that no-one sees them. It is difficult to make an X-ray of the unemployed person, because things are not what they seem. You can sit down and observe how things work in shops or restaurants, cinemas, offices etc… But observe personal or family crises? Where are the effects of unemployment? Everything carries on as normal while the unemployed person remains invisible.

What do you recommend to people, especially the unemployed?

I am a believer in psycho-social treatments. The impact of unemployment is tremendous and there is only one solution: mutual support. Social support noticeably reduces the shock, and gives the person the feeling that they have a place in society. It is necessary to begin to mobilize people. If I were talking to unemployed people I would tell them to be active both mentally and physically. Not to sit in front of the TV, and to get involved socially in order not to become isolated. The person can be unemployed without their life being stalled.

(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email:

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