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Job Search Depression | How to Cope and Keep the Faith

Amy Bergen

Illustration by Marian Blair

Looking for a job can be a challenge, even in the best circumstances. When you put in a lot of time and effort and don’t immediately see the results you hoped for, you may start to feel discouraged, anxious, or even depressed. 

There may even be a causal link between unemployment and mental health issues; in 2010 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) studied depression rates in 18- to 25-year-olds, and found that young people were three times more likely to experience depression if they weren’t employed. 

Job search depression can set in whether you’re out of work, or just unhappy with your current job. Learning some tactics for handling uncertainty and coping with a process that’s often outside of your control will not only make the job search easier but can offer you valuable “soft skills”—like patience and flexibility—that will come in handy once you land a job, too. 

A quick note: We're social-impact experts, not healthcare professionals. If you are seeking medical advice, please be sure to contact your physician.

Recognize job search burnout

While many feel anxious on the job hunt, job search depression is more severe than garden-variety nerves. Here are some signs you might be hitting the burnout stage: 

  • You feel sad and hopeless most of the time 
  • You don’t think you have any skills to offer a potential employer
  • Job-hunt anxiety interferes significantly with other aspects of your life
  • You’re experiencing exhaustion or other physical symptoms—like headaches—that you haven’t had before 
  • Editing your resume again or writing another cover letter feels impossible

There are reasons why the job search takes a psychological toll. If you’re refreshing your inbox every few minutes or perusing job boards constantly, you’re keeping your body and mind in a high-alert stress mode that can do damage over time. 

Taking care of your emotional health is one of the best things you can do while you’re looking for work. Job search depression often affects self-esteem, and it’s hard to show your talent and value to employers when you don’t feel much confidence. But as you make changes to prioritize your well-being, your self-image is likely to improve, which will boost your ability to make a great impression.

Structure your time 

 If you’re not currently working, you may not have a consistent daily schedule, and this lack of routine can make anxiety and job search depression worse. 

Making yourself a daily schedule (and sticking to it) will help you feel more competent and in control. When you start each day with a plan and a to-do list, knocking off a few tasks—like sending a thank-you email after an interview or researching some promising job leads—can give you a sense of accomplishment.

You’ve probably heard the advice to “treat the job search like a job” and this approach can be a good one for your mental health. 

  • Setting specific working times and deadlines for your search, just as you might with a remote job, will keep you productive. 
  • Since you’re the one making the schedule, you can arrange it in whatever way works best for you. 
  • Physical surroundings make a difference too, so take the time to put together a “home office” setup where you feel comfortable. 
  • Fixed job-hunt hours also give you an opportunity to set boundaries. Once you’re finished with your work hours for the day, relax, recharge, and put the job search out of your mind, instead of feeling the constant pressure to chase down another opportunity. 
  • Give yourself a day off for your mental health when needed, especially if your job search stretches into the long term. 

Set achievable goals

 While you’re plugging away at your ultimate goal—finding the right job—add smaller, more immediate goals along the way. Accomplishing tasks you set out to do, however small they may seem, can kick-start your confidence and motivation. 

Pro tip: Try the SMART goal method, a technique for setting goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. SMART goal-setting is a great way to break a larger ambition down into bite-sized, manageable steps. 

For example, if you’re searching for a position in nonprofit arts administration, landing that specific roles can feel like a broad and overwhelming goal. When you focus, instead, on steps to help get you there—such as contacting two alumni from your university to request an informational interview, writing one cover letter for a museum application or identifying four strengths I can bring to the workplace—you’re narrowing down goals you can likely accomplish within a day. 

Even tasks that aren’t related to the job search, like straightening up your room or making phone calls about health insurance coverage, can earn a place on your goal list. The idea is to feel good about what you’ve achieved and feel like you’re moving forward. 

Pursue your interests

One often-overlooked aspect of job search depression is that many job seekers experience a loss of identity. Maybe your career has helped shape your sense of self for several years, or you’re searching for an entry-level role and unsure how to define yourself now that you’re no longer a student. 

Keep in mind what you do for a living is only a small part of who you are. Try taking advantage of the down time to remind yourself of your unique skills and explore your passions. You might: 

  • Volunteer for a social-impact organization in the field where you’d like to work 
  • Engage in a hobby you enjoy, or explore one you’ve never tried (gardening, exercise, recording a podcast) 
  • Learn a new skill or research a subject you find interesting 

Whatever you do, make sure it’s something you’ll look forward to regularly —having a morale boost will do wonders. 

Socialize and connect 

People who remain unemployed for long periods tend to spend less time with their friends and family, according to a 2014 Gallup survey

For job seekers experiencing job search depression, it’s even more important than usual for you to lean on your support systems. Talking to a close friend about your frustrations, or pursuing therapy if that’s available to you, can give you another perspective that may change the way you look at the job hunt. Chatting about non-work-related topics with friends and family will give your mind a necessary break as well. 

You might also want to seek out an online support group—some groups are designed for the long-term unemployed or for people diagnosed with clinical depression. 

While interactions with others may bring you some job leads, the bigger purpose is to feel connected to a broader community. If you attend a professional industry event, don’t stress about making the perfect networking contact; instead, focus on meeting new people, learning more about the industry itself, and having a good time. 

It may seem like you’re on your own in the job search blues, especially if most people you know appear to be on a great career track. But remember that what you’re experiencing is incredibly common. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the average worker changes jobs about 12 times in their lifetime—workplace transition is something that happens to just about everyone, and it’s not a reflection on your skill, talent, or value. 

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Looking to stay connected to the social-impact space during a job search? Check out the volunteer opportunities on Idealist. 

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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