Remembering to include mental health support

Outplacement should be about more than just resume, interview tips
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/01/2016

Outplacement services generally summon thoughts of resumé-writing workshops and interview skills drills. But a good outplacement service should go beyond those basics and incorporate support for a critical element of any termination: The employee’s mental health. 

Many employers don’t understand the mental health component of a termination, says Deborah Nixon, managing director at Mandrake Human Capital in Toronto. But the psychological side is critical. 

“They understand intellectually but I think they don’t want to think about the deep impact a termination has on somebody.”

HR spends literally five minutes with the departing employee before handing him over to the outplacement person who sees the full impact, she says.

“Employers don’t understand — or even half the time realize — that there are life stories behind people. Sometimes, the termination is due to performance and employers don’t always understand that where they’ve seen a shift in performance or a decline in performance, often there is an underlying issue.”

One woman, for example, had worked at her company for a few years and was terminated due to performance issues. What the employer didn’t know, however, was those issues were a symptom of an abusive home life, says Nixon.

“She would bring that into work, of course, because it’s hard for people to just let that go,” she says. 

“And she didn’t feel that it was professional to share that with her manager, and so they terminate her for poor performance, not understanding the context.” 

Another employee, in a short span of time, had his mother pass away, his mother-in-law in the hospital with cancer and his wife starting divorce proceedings. 

“There are a lot of these stories. So, often, the performance issues are related to something else, and it’s usually a mental health issue that an employee has chosen not to share, for whatever reason,” says Nixon. 

But a little understanding can go a long way. 

“One of the (options) is, yes, termination. But one of the other things leading up to termination is when you put someone on a performance improvement plan, are you actually taking the time to understand what it is and why they can’t perform?” she says.

“When it comes to the actual termination, employers who terminate without (an outplacement counsellor) there… I can’t imagine it. I’ve seen what the outcome is and I can’t imagine sending somebody home in that state. And who knows what kind of situation you’re sending them into.”

Emotional aftermath

Outgoing employees can experience a broad range of emotions and mental health impacts in the aftermath of a termination, says Kornelia Wiechec, manager of strategic career communications and client service at Surcorp Career & Resume Solutions in Toronto. 

“Some people are fine with it; they just want to brush up on their resumé, brush up on their interview skills and move on. Then, there are others who need a lot more support from a mental health perspective,” she says.

“There’s really a range of emotions that I see in my clients. Sometimes it’s shock — they weren’t expecting the termination… that’s generally the first emotion. They can go through anger — they’ve put so much time into an organization and now they’ve been let go… sometimes clients have expressed a feeling of betrayal. Maybe their boss, their co-workers knew this was coming but they had no idea.”

Sometimes, outgoing employees will experience a sense of loss and even grief, she says. 

“(But) sometimes, it’s a relief — they haven’t been happy and maybe that’s why they haven’t been performing well, so it’s a relief, it’s a fresh start for them.

“There are also departing employees who say they feel humiliated that their former co-workers and friends see they’ve been let go, and they feel like it reflects poorly on them,” says Wiechec.

Most people, when they go to work every day, spend a lot more time on their jobs than they might spend with their families, she says.  

“We spend eight hours a day at work so it becomes a big part of our identity. When you meet someone, you ask, ‘What do you do?’ So there’s kind of a loss of that identity.”

And when someone is let go without cause, it’s like the end of a relationship.

“You have no closure, you have no answers, and you’re not going to get those answers. So there’s kind of a sense of needing to re-orient yourself. And if an outplacement service only provides help with your resumé and help with your cover letter and then says, ‘There you are, be on your way,’ that can be a big gap,” says Wiechec. 

Most employers provide a month or two of outplacement — and while resumé writing and job search are key elements, there’s more, says Nixon. 

“The first couple of meetings are all around trying to deal with the emotional state of that person.”

How people view themselves now — in terms of their worth to another employer in the market — may have dramatically changed after being let go. 

“Even when it’s a restructuring, it feels very personal. And it really hits people at a very deep level. It’s a very deep emotional and self-worth level because they feel like a failure,” she says. 

“I don’t even talk about the resumé for a bit of time because you can have the resumé, but if emotionally and mentally you’re not able to get out there and you can’t carry yourself through an interview, the resumé is really irrelevant. You can have a really great-looking resumé but really not be able to be successful in an interview because you’re feeling like a loser.

“So I really work hard at the beginning to help people through that mental and emotional transition.”

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