Study: How losing your job, hitting rock bottom can be a career blessing

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — In the workplace, hitting rock bottom can sometimes be the best way to find your way back to the top. A study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame found that when people fail in business and lose their job, they’re actually given a rare opportunity to find the long-sought path that will lead them to recovery.

That’s because often times, employees find themselves drowning in their struggles for extended periods of times before finally losing their footing for good. It’s only then that they can either choose to remain mired in dysfunction or seek out a new, clear road to higher ground.

“On the way down, we frantically do all sorts of things to try and repair the situation, and suffer as [we] fail,” explains study lead author Dean Shepherd in a university release. “Bottoming out frees us from the misconception that the problems can be fixed, and in the process, frees us from other constraints and negative emotions and provides the conditions necessary to find a viable solution.”

Shepherd says his research suggests that people must seek out a new “work identity” when they lose a job or a role. When they face a crisis of identity, they have to choose a new one to survive.

“Using ‘identity play’ provides a safe environment to escape the situation and try new things, discarding bad ideas or finding and refining a new identity and returning stronger than before,” he says.

With nothing left to lose, at least in their perception, the employee on the rebound can discover a new professional identity they feel more comfortable in, which Shepherd says can even be fun for many.

“A failed corporate executive might consider a variety of other potential roles. For example, sitting on the board of a nonprofit organization that is desperate for experienced managerial guidance, exploring government positions or running for office, working with startups, and so forth,” says Shepherd. “Similarly, a failed entrepreneur might explore how skills learned in starting a business could be applied in a corporate setting, take standardized exams to be considered for law school or engage in other low risk exploration activities. In these cases, hitting rock bottom opens up myriad new opportunities.”

Some real life examples of this behavior he points to includes former Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley. In his 20s, Finley suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury, forcing him out of his job, but quickly turned to coaching and invested in a gym. Another former NFL player, Tony Boselli, was forced into retirement after battling a shoulder injury during his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Though he admits still dealing with an “identity crisis,” he now takes part in several radio shows, coaches high school football, and started a small healthcare firm.

Of course, not everyone responds positively. Others respond to hitting rock bottom by using fantasy as an escape, often leading to substance abuse.

“A failed executive might resort to a numb state that involves abusing alcohol, engaging in menial tasks at home or becoming a couch potato,” Shepherd says. “However, when friends offer job suggestions or ask why the executive has yet to land a new position, it could launch the individual from the numb state into extreme negative emotions leading to destructive behavior.”

Shepherd hopes his research could serve as a lightbulb to those facing a professional demise. Instead of seeing their predicaments as the end, it can be viewed as a grand beginning.

The study was published in the Academy of Management Review.

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Ben Renner

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