By WANDA REESE
Capital News Service
LANSING — Rep. Virg Bernero knows from personal experience the devastation of losing a job.
When the Lansing Democrat speaks to constituents about surviving tough times following a layoff or firing, he isn’t speaking hypothetically – he’s been there.
In 1990, Bernero struggled with the burden of taking care of his family on a meager income after being fired from his job as a consultant in the midst of a union organizing drive.
A then newly elected Ingham County commissioner, Bernero’s lucrative salary from his primary position was suddenly gone, leaving the lawmaker and his family with only the small part-time salary from his commission post to live on while he searched for other work.
“The money was definitely an issue, and weighed heavily on us,” he said.
Bernero and his wife, a substitute teacher, scheduled his job search activities around their daughter’s day-care schedule. He spent his early mornings and afternoons making the rounds and going on interviews. But despite the constant activity, Bernero recalls a difficult time, both physically and emotionally.
“What I remember most vividly, was going to Potter Park with my daughter, feeling disoriented, anxious and worried about what was in store for us,” he said.
According to health care experts, the loss of a job can have profound effects on a person’s psyche and overall emotional health. But more importantly, they say, is that many people are unaware of the role unmanaged stress can play in causing physical illness.
The connection between mind and body and illness has been well documented by health experts in recent years.
Last year, the number of physicians noting increases in patient office visits resulting from stress, increased by more than 70 percent. Complaints ranged from chronic levels of muscle tension and migraine headaches to depression.
Among major life events, such as death, divorce and serious illness, job loss is ranked among life’s most stressful events.
“It ranks right up there in the top five losses,” said Tom Helma, a Lansing certified social worker. Helma has provided more than 30 years of counseling in both mental health and workplace-based settings.
“We not only get our livelihood from our work, but also a sense of identity as well.”
Helma said the work roles we play give us a sense of meaning and purpose, along with an all-important network of both casual and intimate friendships that provide day-to-day support.
Support is a key element in surviving a period of unemployment Helma said, and that can come from a number of resources.
“We do have a fairly good system in Michigan to provide resources that people need to get people independent and back on their feet,” said Rep. Scott Shackleton, R-Sault Ste. Marie.
“The uncertainty that anyone deals with at the time of a job loss can be unsettling. Not knowing how you’re going to support your family can be devastating.”
Shackleton said a healthy supply of service jobs in Emmet County this year is being spurred by the tourism season.
“But unfortunately many of the opportunities in the service sector don’t tend to pay well,” he said.
Resources for job seekers exist at the 100 Michigan Works! service centers located throughout the state. Career counseling and various career assessment tools are provided to those either out of work or looking for a better position.
“The intent is to remove any barriers to employment faced by those seeking help,” said Tiffany Dowling, director of marketing and public relations for the Michigan Department of Career Development.
Dowling said the agency offers specialized services to those with disabilities, receiving public assistance and veterans.
But there’s only so much help available from government and community service agencies.
Much of the support and resources needed to maintain emotional and physical help comes from the personal support systems everyone needs.
“We associate so much of our self-worth with what we do for a living,” said Bernero.
According to The Stress Solution, by Lyle H. Miller and Alma Dell Smith, 43 percent of all adults suffer harmful health effects from unmanaged stress from any source. Equally important, many people are unaware of the connection between extraordinary levels of stress and many emotional and physical troubles.
According to statistics from the American Psychological Association, stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, liver disease and suicide.
Career planning expert Dawn Rosenberg McKay says those who experience job loss usually “cycle through” common stages of emotions during the adjustment, which includes denial, anger and frustration, before learning to adapt and move on. She said much of the anxiety experienced from job loss stems from the strong identification most people have with their professional personas.
“When the job is taken away, we can lose track of who we are and even why we are,” she said.
McKay recommends dealing with stress head-on by stepping up to the plate right away in coping.
She said taking action by finding out about eligibility for unemployment benefits and health insurance, as well as getting involved fully in the job-search process are all potent stress reducers.
“Surviving a job loss entails a number of things,” said Helma. “Faith in God, faith in one’s self, opening up to people in one’s network of family and friends for emotional support, and, surprisingly, getting right to the task of looking for a next job.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By WANDA REESE