Unemployment Survival Guide: 13 Tips to Help You Thrive

Reviewed by Joanna Zambas

unemployed man holding a sign that says "I need a job"

In 2012, as the effects of the global financial crisis four years earlier still lingered, I suddenly found myself without a job and with a redundancy letter in my hand.

I spent the next two years officially unemployed – taking on freelance writing gigs, designing wedding invitations and selling handmade Christmas cards during that time to get by – but I eventually found a full-time job which led me to where I am today: the editor-in-chief of the website you’re currently reading this article on.

I’m not saying it will take you two years to find another job – at least I hope not. All I’m saying is that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, even if you can’t quite see it right now. The point is: don’t give up. You will find something else. You will be okay.

But in the meantime, you need to persevere. And – whether it’s because you were fired, laid off or you quit your job in a blaze of glory – that’s what this guide is for: to help you survive unemployment.

1. File for unemployment

First things first, if you haven’t already done so, get yourself down to your local claims office to register for unemployment benefits – the sooner, the better (preferably the very day you become unemployed).

Depending on where you live, you will generally only receive unemployment benefits for a specific period of time. In most countries, this is six months, but some countries offer benefits for longer. Germany, for example, pays unemployment benefits for up to 12 months.

Make sure to check your local government’s guidance on filing for unemployment, which will explain things like how to apply, eligibility criteria, how much and when you’ll be paid, as well as any necessary documentation. Most governments have dedicated webpages with this information, which you can easily find on Google by searching for relevant search terms (for example: ‘Unemployment benefits US’).

2. Take time to grieve your loss

I won’t give you that generic ‘know you’re not alone’ nonsense. Sure, you’re not the first person to find themselves unemployed and you certainly won’t be the last. But that’s the kind of advice that, truly, offers no value. It’s unhelpful and meaningless, right to its very core, despite the adviser’s best intentions.

Instead, what I will tell you is to take time to grieve your job loss.

Like any kind of loss (such as the death of a loved one or the end of a romantic relationship), you will experience the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

Embrace your grief – don’t fight it. Pretend it’s all just a bad dream. Get angry at your former boss. Ask yourself ‘what if’. Feel sad. These are all normal emotions and part of the healing process. Only then will you be able to come to terms with your job loss and move on.

It’s important to note here that everyone copes with grief differently. This means you may remain in one stage for weeks at a time and skip others entirely, you may experience the depression stage first before the denial stage, or you may switch back and forth between the different stages. There’s no set timetable or sequence and no right or wrong way to grieve.

3. Reach out to family and friends

Speaking from personal experience, you may find yourself slowly withdrawing yourself from family and friends, either out of shame of losing your job or because you feel so sad that you just can’t bear the thought of facing the world.

But this can do more harm than good. Indeed, research shows that social isolation can have adverse effects on both our mental and physical health, including depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease and increased mortality. It can even take a toll on our self-esteem and damage our personal relationships.

It’s, therefore, imperative that you reach out to family and friends during this difficult and stressful time of your life. You’ll naturally have bottled-up emotions, and airing your grievances and talking about your feelings out loud will undoubtedly give you a sense of relief.

You don’t even have to talk about your job loss if you’re not quite yet ready. Sometimes, just socialising with the people who care about you can do you the world of good, even if it’s meeting for a couple of drinks at your favourite hangout.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any alone time at all. Setting aside some personal time for yourself definitely has its perks: it helps you get in touch with your emotions and it allows you to reflect on your goals, dreams and aspirations, both personal and professional. But don't become a recluse and spend most of the time alone. 

4. Seek professional counselling

If you don’t feel comfortable talking about things with loved ones (because you don’t want to cause your spouse further stress, for example), you don’t have a very supportive network of friends, or you’re having a particularly difficult time dealing with your sudden unemployment, you may want to consider booking an appointment with a trained professional.

There’s absolutely no shame in seeking professional help – especially when considering that it can be life-saving in some cases. Indeed, unemployment – particularly long-term unemployment – can cause severe stress and lead to depression. If left untreated, this can in turn lead to a variety of complications, including substance use problems, self-harm and thoughts of suicide. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, please call your country’s suicide prevention hotline right away. Befrienders Worldwide offers a searchable directory of suicide crisis lines.

Your doctor can refer you to a therapist who’ll be able to help you cope with the mental and emotional strains of unemployment, or you can ask family and friends for recommendations or simply do a quick Google search. The important thing is finding a therapist that you feel comfortable with, which may mean seeing two or three therapists before you find the right one for you.

Therapy can be a long-term affair for some people, but for others it may only take a couple of sessions to acquire the necessary skills and tools to help them cope with their concerns and thrive. Your therapist will provide you with a timeline (including frequency and number of visits) that they believe is appropriate for your situation. It all depends on what you want and need, and how dedicated and open you are to therapy.

5. Join a support group

No matter how understanding, caring and well-meaning your family and friends might be, they may not be able to completely grasp all that you’re going through. And that’s where support groups come in.

No one understands what you’re going through better than others in the same boat as you, and joining a dedicated unemployment support group is a great way to let off steam, listen to and learn from other people’s experiences, exchange leads on job opportunities, and get feedback on your job search efforts. It’s also a great way to build your network and maybe even make a new friend or two.

If there aren’t any appropriate support groups where you live or you don’t want to travel, meanwhile, consider starting your own group. This can be a particularly great idea if former coworkers of yours were also laid off at the same time as you. That said, depending on where you live, you may need to meet certain criteria and apply for a licence before starting your group. It’s, therefore, imperative that you do your research and contact your local government for more information on requirements and restrictions.

6. Manage your finances

Money is bound to be tight now. You don’t know when your next paycheque is coming in, and you’ve got rent to pay and put food on the table. This might be the most stressful thing about being unemployed, particularly if you have a family to look after, so you’ll need to be frugal with your expenses.

Develop a realistic weekly or monthly financial plan to strictly follow, budgeting the basics (like rent, bills and groceries) and taking into account your severance package (if you were laid off), unemployment allowance and any other sources of income. By taking inventory of your expenses and income, you’ll be able to calculate how long your money will last and plan accordingly.

Meanwhile, find ways to save money. Speak to your internet and phone service provider about switching to a cheaper plan, for example, and cut back on certain luxuries like dining out as well as recurring expenses like gym memberships and Netflix subscriptions.

If you’re really struggling financially, you might want to consider taking out a loan, though do keep away from payday loans as they can be incredibly expensive to pay off. Talk to your bank about your options regarding personal loans – some banks even have special programmes for customers who have bad credit scores. If that doesn’t work out, though, you could always borrow from the Bank of Mum and Dad.

7. Treat your job search like a full-time job

When you become unemployed, finding a new job becomes your job, and you should treat it as such.

You’ll want to start with the basics: your résumé. Spend the first day or two of unemployment looking at examples for inspiration and updating your résumé with recent experience and any relevant skills and qualifications you’ve acquired since your last job search. Make sure you read up on all knots and bolts of résumé writing, including choosing the right format, avoiding common mistakes and tailoring your résumé to the jobs you’re applying for. (If you’re struggling with writing your résumé, you might want to hire professional help – our expert writers are just a click away and can help you craft a job-winning document.)

Now you’ll want to get down to business: finding and applying for suitable jobs. You should dedicate between 25 and 30 hours a week to your job search, browsing job boards (like our very own CareerAddict Jobs), applying to relevant jobs and even sending speculative applications to companies you’d like to work for. It’s a good idea to set a daily target for the number of jobs to apply to, and to keep a detailed record of all your applications so far (including dates of application and follow-up, company and position names, etc).

8. Find new sources of income

Like most people who find themselves suddenly unemployed, you’ll want to find a new job as soon as possible. But, realistically speaking, it can take some time before you secure a new position.

In November 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that unemployment of US workers generally lasted an average 9.5 weeks. This figure, of course, should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the global economy and job market have been turned upside down by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, compared to the previous year, most unemployed persons were able to secure a new job in under five weeks.

Until you find a new job, then, it’s a good idea to look for new sources of income to complement your unemployment allowance. There are many ways you can do this, including:

  • Freelancing your services – if you’re a writer, for example, you could apply for online gigs on niche job boards like ProBlogger; depending on how successful you are, you could even set up your own business
  • Selling things you no longer need – you could list old CDs and toys on eBay or Facebook Marketplace, for example, or hold a garage sale
  • Offering pet-sitting or dog-walking services – not only will you make some extra cash but you’ll also get to spend time with animals, which is highly beneficial for both your mental and physical wellbeing
  • Starting an online store – if you make handmade jewellery or greeting cards, for example, you can sell your creations on sites like Etsy
  • Tutoring – if you’re an expert in your field and have the right qualifications behind you, you could set up a tutor profile on sites like Preply and share your knowledge with students virtually

9. Take care of yourself

When we’re in between jobs, self-care often takes a backseat. But it should be your top priority (along with looking for a new job). Indeed, when you take good care of yourself, you’re better equipped at navigating your job loss and maximising your job search, while it’s also good for your mental and physical health.

Eat healthy (cut back on the junk food), get enough sleep (eight hours is the magic number), exercise regularly, treat yourself to the occasional luxury (like a spa day), read a good book or listen to a podcast, don’t drink too much alcohol – essentially: be kind to yourself, to your body, soul and mind.

10. Fill your time (and CV) with meaningful activities

Between looking for a job and practising self-care, you’ll likely have a lot of extra time on your hands now. Sure, you could binge-watch your favourite shows on Netflix, but you need to show prospective employers that you’re spending your time productively. Companies don’t want to hire someone who lazes around all day; they want a go-getter, someone who emits a strong work ethic and who is proactive in their personal and professional development.

In other words, you need to fill your time with meaningful activities, like:

  • Doing some volunteer work – the more relevant to your industry, the better
  • Learning a new skill – sites like Coursera offer free courses on a wide variety of subjects
  • Launching a blog where you can share your industry knowledge and expert insights

Not only will this help you keep busy (and from going out of your mind), but it will also help you bridge employment gaps in your résumé which might otherwise be uncomfortable explaining to potential employers.

11. Get out the house

I get it: your home is your refuge, your safe space. But boarding up the windows and doors and throwing away the metaphorical (or, worse, literal) key won’t do you any good. This circles back to the whole social isolation thing I mentioned earlier.

You need to get out of the house as frequently as possible. Even if it’s just for a walk in your local park, visiting your best friend or even a trip to the supermarket. A change of scenery, after all, is a great wellbeing and mood booster.

Just because you’re unemployed, it doesn’t mean that you can’t take advantage of your free time and do things that you couldn’t easily do when you were in a full-time job. In fact, there are plenty of free and budget-friendly things you can do outside the four walls of your home without breaking the bank, including:

  • Visiting a free museum or art gallery
  • Volunteering at your local animal shelter (remember what I said about being around animals being good for you?)
  • Participating in a free outdoor yoga class
  • Joining a free wine tasting tour
  • Attending a free concert
  • Going for a hike

12. Create (and maintain) a daily structure

When you had a full-time job, you likely had a daily routine: wake up, get dressed, go to work, go home, make dinner, socialise, and repeat.

Even though you’re unemployed and you don’t have a job to go to, you should still maintain some sort of routine. We humans are creatures of habit, after all, and creating a (somewhat adapted) structure to your day can help you stay motivated and feel like you’re making progress in your job search.

Here’s an example:

  • 06:30 Wake up
  • 07:00 Go for a run
  • 07:30 Have a shower
  • 08:00 Have breakfast
  • 08:30 Start looking and applying for jobs
  • 12:30 Have lunch
  • 13:00 Continue your job search
  • 16:00 Do something for yourself
  • 18:00 Have dinner
  • 23:00 Go to bed

Your daily schedule doesn’t have to look exactly like this. You can make it more detailed, switch activities around, add other tasks, whatever you want – just make sure you stick to it. And don’t forget to give yourself a day or two off every week – if you didn’t work on weekends when you were employed, for example, you could maintain that same arrangement.

13. Stay positive

Although it is easier said than done, maintaining a positive outlook is key to your mental and emotional wellbeing during this particularly stressful time of your life.

Unemployment doesn’t last forever. Yes, it may sometimes be lengthy, but it’s not permanent. Look at me: I was unemployed for two whole years, but like I mentioned earlier, I did eventually find a job. And a good one at that.

You need to keep reminding yourself that the next opportunity – maybe even your dream job – is just around the corner. Of course, you’re bound to have the occasional bad day, and that’s okay. But just don’t lose faith. And don’t lose focus: as long as you keep trying and you persevere, you’ll be back on track and in employment before you know it.

Here are some things to try to develop and maintain positivity:

  • Tell yourself positive affirmations in the morning – our Instagram account is full of inspiration
  • Watch funny videos (laughter, after all, really is the best medicine)
  • Listen to happy and positive songs
  • Surround yourself with positive people
  • Write a list or keep a journal of all the things you’re grateful for

How are you coping with unemployment? What other tips and strategies can you share with our readers in the same boat with you? Let us know in the comments section below – and good luck in your job search!

This article is an update of an earlier version originally published on 3 November 2016.