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Why Getting Fired Is Worse Than Divorce

Broken hearts heal. A blotch on the resume is harder to repair.

“It’s just not working out” may be some of the most heartbreaking words in the English language, leading to months of anguish, self-questioning and sleepless nights. Even worse: when they come from your boss.

Fired employees never quite recover to the same level of well-being, a measure that includes mental health, self-esteem and satisfaction with life, according to data provided to Bloomberg this week from a review of more than 4,000 research papers.

Losing a job can be a sharp blow, one that causes a bigger drop in life satisfaction than being widowed or getting divorced, according to the review conducted by the University of East Anglia and the What Works Center for Wellbeing, an independent body set up by the U.K. government. 

Unemployed people continue to become increasingly unhappy over the next few years. Their best hope is to find a new, permanent job—preferably with high pay and high prestige—that can smooth over some of the shock.

People who lose a partner, on the other hand, can bounce back. “After someone loses a partner, [well-being will] take a big dip and then, on average, it’ll get back to previous levels,” said Tricia Curmi of the What Works Center for Wellbeing. “But with unemployment, we just don’t see that happening.”

British men’s well-being returns to normal levels two years after losing their partner and four years after the breakdown of a relationship. But losing a job? Their well-being continues to decline for more than four years. Men are more likely to be hit harder by the blow than are women.

People can move on from bereavements and divorces. The excitement of meeting someone new after a split can send the heart soaring, while people continue to struggle from unemployment, according to a 2011 meta-analysis of research carried out by academics at the Freie Universitaet Berlin.

Not enough evidence exists to definitively say why getting a pink slip is so damaging, but researchers connect it to the importance we place on having a meaningful job. “To have meaning in your life in this society means to be working, contributing, and to have that status,” Curmi said.

Despite the grumbling, people actually care about their work and the social support they get from co-workers.

Nearly half of workers in the U.K. are satisfied with their jobs, while only 25 percent are dissatisfied, according to a report released last month by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a human resources association.

The impact of being fired is particularly pronounced on younger workers, the research shows. Tom O’Sullivan, 18, was fired from his first job after a three-month probation period. He believes it was because he took a sick day during his first month.

“It’s obviously not what you want to happen,” said O’Sullivan, who lives in northwest England. “It’s not exactly good for confidence, especially for your next job; you’re going have to say you’ve been sacked.”

Help from family and friends can mitigate the worst impacts. Extroverts bounce back quicker, if not entirely, the research said.

Divine inspiration can help salve the pain, Curmi said. “People who regularly attended church had a buffering effect from the impact of unemployment,” she said.

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