Kate Southam and Lucy Kippist
For couples, a job loss can be a disaster or an opportunity depending on whether they take a reactive or proactive approach.
That’s the view of experts including clinical psychologist Jo Lamble, executive coach Libby Sander, CEO of Relationships Australia Ann Hollands and career coach Bill Lang.
Unemployment has now reached 5.4 per cent in March but is expected to rise and could climb over 8 per cent next year.
In March, the number of women in full time and part time work passed that of men in full time work for the first time in Australian history, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. More than 90,000 men have lost full time jobs in the past six months.
Primary bread winners are becoming primary care givers overnight as women go back to work or move from part time to full time jobs.
Changes in family finances, fears about the future and struggles with self esteem and social status can see domestic tensions skyrocket.
So how can couples navigate the dramatic change caused by a redundancy?
Work from a position of strength
Ms Hollands warns a job loss is one of the top three triggers for relationship break up.
“The impact of redundancy on the relationship really depends on how the relationship is going in the first place,” says Ms Hollands.
Ms Lamble is also assisting more couples where the man has lost his job.
“What I am finding is that the woman is initiating some counselling because a redundancy is coming up and their partner have been given a lot of notice,” says Ms Lamble.
“These women want to know ‘how can I support him in this without nagging?’
“The man often has his whole confidence and sense of purpose wrapped up in his job and that is why he can find it difficult to communicate,” says Ms Lamble.
“He might not even know how deep it goes. He might appear just concerned about paying the bills but it goes deeper.
For women, suddenly abandoning plans to stay home and raise a family can lead to anger and resentment.
One couple she counselled swapped roles during the last recession. The husband found a lower paid job and embraced looking after the home and the couple’s four children while his wife carved a successful career. Now all these years later the wife admitted she felt her husband had taken the role she really wanted.
“He was gob smacked. He thought he was helping all these years. The problem is she didn’t speak up.”
Ms Lamble recommends discussing the implications of a job loss including how the roles of each partner will change as soon as there is talk of a job loss.
“They need to say, ‘let’s use this opportunity for me to tell you how much you are worth as a parent and a partner.”
Libby Sander says both parties need to “keep communicating really openly about what each partner is feeling.”
“They need to take what is under the table – what is unspoken - and put it on the table. It might be uncomfortance and confronting but it needs to be done.”
Taking a break after a job loss
Both Libby Sander and Jo Lamble have encountered couples at loggerheads over whether or not the person who has just lost their job should take a break.
The redundancy pay out could serve as a windfall if the partner made redundant finds another job quickly. Couples also start to panic about major ongoing expenses such as the mortgage, rent and car repayments.
“The man might say, ‘I just want to take a month off and enjoy time off with you and the kids and then I will start [job hunting] in earnest and then she is saying ‘no, no, no … you must start right now,” says Ms Lamble.
“You can definitely see his desire for a break but she deserves empathy and understanding for her point of fear.
Ms Sander said she coached a very senior telecommunications executive after he was made redundant. He desperately wanted to take a breather after years of long hours but his wife was pushing for him to get back to work.
“A lot of these people I am seeing are suffering from burnt out because they have spent years going at a million miles an hour.
“[The senior executive] was crying during our session – he just couldn’t’ face job hunting.”
Support for the job hunt
The time it will take for someone to find a new role varies widely. A shop assistant might find a job immediately while a senior executive could expect to search for a minimum of three months even in good times.
“Really talk about the options together and talk about a [job hunting] plan that both parties are comfortable with,” says Ms Sanders.
Ms Lamble says couples need to negotiate on issues such as progress reports and what help a partner can offer.
“The person who loses the job may want help with resumes and debrief after interviews – they may not. If you don’t want to be asked every day then keep [your partner] informed.
Bill Lang says although a partner can be fearful they must try to be “strong, supportive and confident” in how they communicate with the job seeker.
Support can also come from encouraging the job seeker to stay active whether that is voluntary work, exercise or catching up with contacts.
To the job seeker he says, “Stay positive and look at the things you still have. Get out into your community, volunteer and build on your social intelligence to avoid social isolation,” Mr Lang says.
Talking to children
“Kids should be sheltered from financial concerns as much as possible,” says Ms Lamble.
However, she encourages parents to be upfront about how a job loss will impact home life such as cancelling a family holiday or planned family purchase.
Ms Hollands says parents also need to be mindful of the impact their increased stress levels will have on children.
“Kids are fabulous sponges and they are aware of what is going on. While their behaviour might not change at home [parental stress] could be underlying [in behaviour outside the home] for example they might be getting into fights at school.”
Ms Lamble says parental “anxieties can shape the way kids look at [issues] in the future.” A child could grow into an adult overly anxious about spending money even when they have plenty or who spends recklessly.
“This generation will always be better off if they see mum and dad taking a team approach to things,” she says.