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Episode 110: Maintaining Mental Health During a Prolonged Job Search – with Chris Rudnicki

Chris Rudnicki headshot

Episode Description

We contacted Chris after reading his powerful and compelling article in Medium about his father’s depression during a prolonged period of unemployment, and the risks of ignoring mental health issues during the job search. We see signs of depression and anxiety in our own community of relaunchers; when people post in our private Facebook groups, when they write to us, and when we meet them face to face at our conferences and events. Carol explores this critically important topic in her conversation with Chris, who co-founded Project Tugboat, “which empowers professionals to overcome the social and emotional challenges of unemployment.”

Links to Episode Content

Chris' Medium article Unemployed and at Sea

Project Tugboat

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host for today. Today, we welcome Chris Rudnicki. Chris is a principal at Titan Partners, a strategy consulting firm focused on education.

In addition to his work at Titan Partners, Chris is a co-founder of a company called Project Tugboat, which empowers professionals to overcome the social and emotional challenges of unemployment. We contacted Chris after reading his powerful and compelling article in Medium about his father's depression during a prolonged period of unemployment, and the risks of ignoring mental health issues during the job search.

We see signs of depression and anxiety in our own community of relaunchers when people post in our private Facebook groups, when they write to us, and when we meet with them face-to-face at our conferences and events. It's a very important topic, and we wanted to explore it further with Chris. Chris, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Chris Rudnicki: Thank you so much, Carol. It's a pleasure to be here.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, it's great to have you, Chris, I wanna talk, first about the article itself. Your article is called Unemployed and At Sea, the Quiet Crisis of Confidence That we Ignore at our Own Peril. Can you give our listeners a summary of the article and what you wrote about in it.

Chris Rudnicki: Sure, absolutely. So at the highest level, the article is about the psychological, or as I like to say, the social and emotional toll of job loss and unemployment. To bring that topic to life, most of my focus and the pieces on my father's experience over the past decade or so of his life as he navigated falling in and out of work over and over again.

And I try to touch on what it feels like to be a son in that situation, to be someone that is trying to help a loved one, but isn't quite sure how. And so in many ways, the article became a personal narrative of sorts that tries to shed some light on a much larger and universal experience. And it was my attempt to put a lot of the kind of uncomfortable and hard stuff that my family has gone through on the table, out in the open, in the hopes that others might read it and glean a useful way to frame their own experiences with a really difficult subject.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, you certainly did an incredible job at conveying that. I, this is one of the most powerful articles that I've ever seen on this topic, and I'm so grateful to you and to your father, for you for writing the article, and your father for agreeing to put in a public domain a very personal story.

I wanted to understand a little bit more about the background and the origins of the article. Did you come up with the idea one day and approach your father about it and you hashed it out with him? Or did he think of it? Like, how did it come about? And how did you approach him about potentially featuring his personal story?

Chris Rudnicki: Sure. That's a great question, Carol. The article is really a product of several years of me trying to play the role to some extent of career coach and counselor to my own father, which obviously is a difficult role to play as a son. And, when I eventually had the idea for the article, it was really a process of me trying to figure out what had I done right over the past few years of trying to help my dad through his bouts of unemployment and where had I gone wrong. And, that conversation was a conversation that my dad and I had been having for years.

And so when I finally put something down on paper and went to him and said, Hey, look, I'm trying to kind of process this experience that you and I went through. And I have this idea of potentially writing an article. What do you think? I remember I, I sent him a first draft and, within 24 hours, he had sent me a draft back with line edits.

And he was ready to fully participate. And I think if you asked him today, what this process was like for him, I think he would say, and he's said this much to me as well. Is, it was a process that allowed him to reframe his experience and, kind of work through the experience and all that he had been through over the past decade.

And so in, in a lot of ways it was, a process that ended up bringing my dad and I closer together than we were.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Do you think in some ways it was, I don't know if you wanna say therapeutic, but certainly liberating for him to get the story out in the public domain and then be able to look at it retrospectively and read about it.

Did that, did you notice any kind of change in his demeanor or his approach to the ins and out of his employment situation following the article as opposed to before it was written?

Chris Rudnicki: I think so. I don't wanna put words in his mouth, but I think one of the hardest parts about job loss and unemployment is that it feels like a very personal burden.

It's something that, is an incredibly isolating experience and it often feels as if we're navigating it all by ourselves. And I think my dad lived with that for much of the past decade and I don't think it was completely the article. I think there were some other things that my, my dad was working through and has been working through recently that have allowed to process his experiences in a way that allow him move forward in a slightly more positive direction than the one that he was going in. But the, the article was certainly part of that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Chris, you just hit on something that is a fundamental piece of the job search process, the prolonged job search process that, you know, people who are laid off or lose their jobs experience for sure, and that was your father's situation, but also our relaunchers who in many cases took a voluntary career break and now are making their way back in, and it's taking a lot longer than they were anticipating. And now, it's a little, it's very hard to find a job in a recession, but you also know that a lot of people are unemployed.

And now it's the opposite. There, there's a very low unemployment rate, but that almost makes you feel worse if you're looking because you feel like it seems like everyone else has a job and you're in a "full employment economy." So this whole concept of it being an isolating experience, not only from the individual standpoint, but from other people's standpoint as you're talking about, like how do other people interact, friends and family interact with you when you're the job seeker, when they don't even really know how to handle it either, and that also, contributes to the isolation. So can you just comment on the isolation piece of it?

Chris Rudnicki: Yeah, sure. I think you touch on something that actually, my dad, has talked a lot about to me over the past few years, which is, when the economy is doing well and you see a 4% unemployment rate, and you are struggling to find new work, it, it really makes you feel as if you know you are doing something wrong.

It, it is a, it is a problem about you, it is not a problem that transcends you. And I think that is one of the biggest and dangerous fictions in the whole unemployment experience. Job loss happens to many people throughout their careers. Depending on how you look at the numbers, something like in between 20 and 25 million people get laid off or discharged every year from work.

And that's not counting a lot of your listeners, Carol, who are maybe have been out of the labor market for a long period of time and are trying to get back in. But the larger point is that this is a, this is an experience that, almost everybody is gonna go through at least once in their life.

Whether they directly experience it themselves, or they are somebody who is watching this experience at arm's length as a loved one or a friend goes through it. And so the isolation that comes with this experience is really in a lot of ways, it's psychological. It is a way of kind of thinking about your experience and your position in the world.

That can be really dangerous. And that is not to undermine that perspective because I think it is really difficult, to look at it any other way. And to be able to step outside yourself, so to speak, and realize that, your experience as somebody who is trying to find new work is nested in this much larger story and this much, much more universal dynamic.

And, again, that does not make, that does not make the feelings that people experience any less real. It, it is really can be daunting and overwhelming for people as they kind of work through this. And I think the other thing that touches on this a little bit is it's really difficult, and this is what I get into a little bit in or to try to get into a little bit with the article, is it's really difficult as somebody who is adjacent to this experience and trying to figure out how to support someone. This is not something that we are trained to do in school. And it's not something that we are often doing with our own friends and families enough, which is just learn how to be a good supporter in these situations.

And so a lot of ways the article has was a way for me to try to articulate to a certain extent what I have come to learn watching my dad kind of experience the isolation and the stress and the anxiety and the depression associated with these experiences, and try to figure out, what have I learned, in this process of trying to support him through all of this.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So actually, could we briefly, dive into a co some of those recommendations and learnings that you had, and also maybe that you got from your father in terms of, how can people, I like that, that, that phrase adjacent, how can people who are adjacent to the job seeker support them in a way that is constructive? or meaningful?

Chris Rudnicki: Yeah, it's a good question and I, my biggest takeaway, and this is where I end the article, is the most important thing, the most important lesson, at least for me. But I do think this applies to many other people that I've spoken to who are adjacent to this type of issue, is to avoid the pitfall of wanting to fix the problem, and to simply just be there as somebody who unconditionally supports and loves the person that is going through this. I think that is one of the hardest things to do as a friend or a family member is watch somebody who is struggling through, again the stress and depression and anxiety of these types of experiences and not want to immediately jump in and fix everything and, tell the person, Oh, you need to go read this or talk to this person, or just tweak this about your life, and, magically it'll all go away and it'll all be fine. That is a really difficult urge to fight. But the thing that actually ends up helping the most is simply being there, is simply being able to check in on a regular basis. It's simply being able to express that you understand and acknowledge the difficulty of the path that the other person is on.

And, you know, it sounds simple and it sounds like you're not doing anything, but you're doing a lot by doing that. And that is my number one bit of advice coming out of this experience is that don't feel as if you have to proactively engineer a fix to the problem that the the other person is going through. Simply take a position that is a bit more supportive, not passive and arm's length, but supportive in nature.

And I think that goes a long way.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That is such incredible advice. And, but it's really hard sometimes when that person is depressed because depression can affect productivity. So you might be observing that the person isn't really it doesn't seem to be doing that much to advance their job search, and that can feel frustrating for the people who are adjacent. But you're saying you just have to kind of of muscle through those periods and accept that and don't push and just understand that it's gonna take longer, because depression is affecting productivity in the job search.

Chris Rudnicki: Yeah. I think, to, to use your word there, acceptance is a big part of this process for both the person experiencing unemployment and trying to find a new job, but also for family and friends who are trying to support them. Acceptance goes a long way to being able to fully confront the reality of this situation. And you're right, it's really hard to wake up in the morning and be constructive and productive day in and day out on a job search that lasts weeks or months or in some cases even years. I think when you look at the research around what really helps people through major life events like losing your job or experiencing unemployment, a lot of these, a lot of the stuff that really seems to work is pretty simple. It's back to the basics. It's reconnecting with family and friends and communities. It is making sure that you're getting a full night's sleep every night, and you have some kind of structure when you wake up in the morning, so that you start your day in a way that allows you to feel as if, when you get to the end of the day that you've actually accomplished something. That is not to say that you need to, treat the job search as a full-time job and push everything that is not job searching out of your life. That is to say that, to keep the job search in perspective and to make sure that it's always balanced with these other, these healthy habits and this, "mental hygiene," that allows you to really feel as if you are, you're making progress, through this process.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I just wanna go back to this point about people who are in the depths and in, in the midst of a prolonged job search feeling like everything is personal, because what we often see is that people have sent emails out to other people and then they haven't gotten a response, or they've been in a process and then all of a sudden it's like radio silence. And then they like maybe reach out one more time and they don't hear anything and they just think, Wow, I must have really blown that interaction, or I, there I just must be so undesirable as a candidate. And then they find out two and a half months later, the person's like, Oh my gosh, I just found your email in my spam file. I'm so sorry I didn't get back to you. That kind of thing.

Yeah. And I always feel, that it was, that it's very important to communicate with the relaunchers in our community that it's not personal, and most likely there's some completely unrelated situation going on that is leading to a delay in response. Do you have any comments about those little things like the email response and how people can keep a positive attitude when they're, when that's happening to them?

Chris Rudnicki: Yeah. I do have some thoughts on this, 'cause I, I absolutely agree with you and I think you're exactly right. When I, when I, go out and talk to people about these types of experiences one of the phrases that I always hear is, it's the black hole of the application or the the black hole of calling and speaking with recruiters.

And I think that's true. You send stuff over the transom and then you never hear back. And then this gets back to our conversation a few minutes ago about feeling as if this problem is really, it's a problem about me and I'm doing something wrong, and in understanding that you are nested in this larger dynamic of what is happening in labor markets in the 21st century and how human resource departments are making decisions about candidates and the dynamics of the recruiting and staffing industries. Where, you're right there, there are these tremendous kind of macro level pressures on this system right now that make it very impersonal.

Where you know, the "no" responses have become the default setting, so to speak, in, in terms of the job search. And as somebody who's going through that, that can be an incredibly difficult thing because again, it's just so easy to say, I must be doing something wrong. Because all you see is your empty inbox, right?

Or your, all you see is your phone that you know no one is calling you back. And the reality is that is an experience that is being had by thousands if not millions of people in any given moment. And I think, just being able to keep in mind my, this is, the one thing that I would really encourage listeners is like just being able to keep in mind that, it is most likely the case that this is not a you problem. This is a problem that is much larger than you, like you are nested in this much larger dynamic. I think seeing that and being able to kind of confront that and internalize that, I think empowers can empower people to realize that, it is not a personal shortcoming. It is something that they are subject to in a way. And, I think this was just to bring it back a little bit to my dad, this was, I think one of the things that writing the article and talking to him about it as I was writing it, helped him realize to a certain extent, was that, it is this problem and the sets of issues that he faces on a daily life are so much bigger than him. And it is not him that is the problem here, it is these larger forces at play. And I think once he, started to internalize that, I think that's when he started to feel empowered because, all of a sudden he could say, you know what, There are things that I can control and there are things that I can't control. And unfortunately a lot in the job searching process falls into the realm of things that you know can't be immediately controlled by you.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Chris, what was, what kind of reaction did you get when the article was published? Did people reach out to you and strangers get in touch and talk about the article's impact on them?

Chris Rudnicki: Yeah. I received quite a few really kind notes after I published the article. And mostly, readers just wanting to say thanks for articulating something that just really isn't talked about. I think it is just so common, and this is a dynamic that, is larger than just job loss and unemployment, but, we, in our culture, there isn't much of a of a precedent for putting really hard things out in the open and talking about them in a way that exposes your vulnerability. And I think this is part of what resonated with readers to a certain extent, is that this was an attempt to do just that, was to say, this is an experience that I know a lot of other people are having and my dad knows a lot of other people are having, and can we articulate it in a way that is true and faithful to our experiences, and to show some of the vulnerability that is just inevitable in this.

And I think, people really respond to that when you're true and open about that stuff. ,

Carol Fishman Cohen: I, I totally agree. Chris, can you tell us more about Project Tugboat? did it, what did, was it related to the release of this article or, tell us a little more about how it, the origins and where you are now.

Chris Rudnicki: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. So Project Tugboat is a support service that helps job seekers better manage the kind of social and emotional challenges on their journey back to work. And, in a lot of ways, Project Tugboat was the kind of product of the years of experience with my own dad trying to figure out what people really need when they are going through one of these experiences.

And, I think the thing that I realized over time, and especially when I started to think more broadly about what is happening in labor markets from a public policy perspective, what is happening in this broader conversation that people refer to as the "future of work," one of the things that I think is missing from that conversation is that there's not a focus on the kind of social and emotional challenges of all of this, that people are being held back by. And so Project Tugboat was, is an attempt to put those social and emotional challenges front and center and to say, in order to get somebody back to work quickly and with less stress than they would have otherwise, we need to reconceive support. We need to stop just saying, oh, if you just format your resume this way, or you write your cover letter that way, or you have this tool to get around applicant tracking systems, all of a sudden your problems will go away.

I, I just don't think that's the case. So, Project Tugboat is you know, trying to provide guidance and tools and courses that allow job seekers to address some of the harder social emotional challenges that they're experiencing. And it really, we launched, I, my co-founder and I launched the company about the same time that this article came out.

And we have been working diligently for the past year, and coming up with our, the first iteration of some of our courses. And we are currently working with a handful of employers who are either experiencing layoffs or about to experience layoffs and are sponsoring outgoing employees to work through the program.

And over the next few weeks, we're very excited because we're gonna, we're gonna have our first direct to consumer or direct to job seeker offering, that is going to be launched. And so we're at an exciting moment right now for Project Tugboat, but, ultimately I have always seen Project Tugboat as part of this larger agenda of really just trying to put the social and emotional challenges of all of this back on the table. Because I really feel as if we can't collectively address those, then we're not gonna be able to make progress on this problem.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's really exciting. We're gonna have to be on the lookout for that announcement. It's a fine line when I talk to career coaches, they say that part of their training when they're working with people is to detect whether the person also needs to have some evaluation by a psychological therapist or an, or have a treatment by a psychiatrist in addition to, or maybe ahead of the career coaching piece.

So that's kinda a fine line. how do you navigate that at Project tugboat?

Chris Rudnicki: Yeah, I think that's a really good question, and it's one that we have grappled with since the very beginning. Our feeling on it is that while you're absolutely right, there are individuals who cross a line at some point into needing professional psychiatric, or psychological care. And that is something that we ourselves are very much in tune to and thinking a lot about, how do we make sure that we are triaging, so to speak, the types of kind of users that might come to Project Tugboat, because there is always going to be a certain percentage of them where a lighter touch intervention such as the one that Project Tugboat might offer is probably not going to be the best thing for them. It's not the thing that they need. They need something that is higher touch. And that's where being able to refer them to a healthcare or mental health provider is incredibly important.

The flip side of that is there are far more people that experience unemployment that need the basic tools in building blocks that are a part of evidence-based interventions, such as, mindful based stress reduction or cognitive behavioral therapy, that can be used outside of a healthcare setting, a clinical healthcare setting.

And there these things can be found in, in self-help books and in online forums and have been shown to actually really help people who might not have an acute mental health problem, process their stress and their anxiety in a way that allows them to be more productive and constructive on their way back to work.

And so Project Tugboat is really oriented to trying to help the large group of individuals out there that we believe are underserved that are not good candidates to go and seek clinical, mental health interventions. . So that's how we think about it right now.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Got it. Chris, we're running out of time and I wanted to close by asking you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is the best piece of advice that you have for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today.

Chris Rudnicki: Sure. I would go back to the fundamentals on this one. I think so much of the research that I have come across and so much of the experiences that other people have communicated to me about what really works comes back to some very basic things. And at the top of that list is reconnecting. And that means reconnecting with family. It means reconnecting with friends, reconnecting with communities that are important to you.

The other thing that I think is just really difficult to ignore is healthy habits. I think one of the things that's really hard in this process as somebody goes through it, is to make sure that you're sleeping enough every night or you're eating well, or you're avoiding too much alcohol.

Those things really add up, and I think it is, things that are, those types of things tend to be overlooked because as long as you know you are filling out a hundred job applications, that's what really matters. But it's the, it's those basic building blocks that I think are just so crucial to making the process of getting back to work one that is not filled with stress and anxiety.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's a, that's great advice. We're gonna post a link to your article with this podcast, but can you also tell our listeners how they can find out more about Project Tugboat?

Chris Rudnicki: Absolutely. Listeners can check out Project Tugboat at our website, That's Project Tugboat, P R O J E C T T U G B O A

Carol Fishman Cohen: So there's two T's in the middle.

Chris Rudnicki: Two t's in the middle. That's right.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Got it. Excellent. Chris, thank you so much for joining us today.

Chris Rudnicki: Thank you Carol.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break.

I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch, go to iRelaunch.Com. And if you like this podcast, be sure to rate it on iTunes and your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Thanks for joining us.

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