Feature

The same marketing techniques that have made billions for soda companies can be used to instill confidence and   self-reliance in unemployed people who've lost those traits since losing work, says Paul Englert, PhD.

“It’s about creating belief,” says Englert, an occupational psychologist with the New Zealand-based Occupational Psychology Research Associates counseling group. “Just as Coca-Cola creates a belief that says, ‘Drink this and good times will roll,’ we can use social marketing techniques to get them to value the job-seeking process.”

With unemployment in the United States hovering around 10 percent, people looking for work can use all the help they can get. Englert, who’s studied long-term unemployment for 13 years, says that not all unemployed people are in equally dire straits. Some people with versatile skill sets will find work on their own in a fairly short amount of time. However, many others will experience the harsher cognitive consequences of unemployment — depression, hopelessness, a loss of control in their lives, even a loss of identity — and remain unemployed far longer than job market conditions dictate. Unfortunately, this latter group doesn’t always get the help it needs to find work. Most unemployment aid agencies throw their resources behind every person who is out of work, Englert says. If, instead, agencies conducted psychological assessments to screen for risks of hopelessness and despair, they could better direct their resources toward those who need it most — a policy recently piloted in New Zealand. “It’s about investing in people who need help,” Englert says.

Such assessments would enable agencies to identify the obstacles that keep certain people unemployed, he says. Then job counseling agencies can adopt a marketing model to get people on the road to employment. The model takes advantage of marketing’s focus on shaping attitudes and then uses that new attitude to spur change. It also recognizes the competing options a person has and tries to show why its product is better.

For some, that can mean simply convincing them to consider moving to an area with better job prospects. Other times, though, the barriers to employment are less concrete. “Learned helplessness” is a major stumbling block for some, Englert says: People can lose their jobs in a recession, fail to find work quickly and then their inability to find work can lead to constant feelings of worthlessness. Even after the recession turns around and more jobs open up, these would-be workers lack the confidence or motivation to look for jobs.

That’s especially true for those who identify highly with their careers, according to research by Peter Creed, PhD, a psychologist at Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus, in Queensland, Australia. In 2009, Creed and his colleagues surveyed 173 unemployed adults on their levels of well-being and commitment to their jobs. They found that people who were most committed to their work suffered most during long periods of unemployment (Personality and Individual Differences, Vol. 47, No. 4).

For these people, Englert says, it’s important to get them to feel accomplished again, even if it’s not in the job market. “A series of minor successes can help improve their confidence,” he says. That means encouraging them to undertake anything that’s goal-oriented, whether it’s taking up a sport or losing weight or learning a skill. They just need to start believing in their own ability to succeed again.

By “selling” achievement and job-seeking as a lifestyle to their clients, Englert says, employment agencies and therapists can help the unemployed get over the psychological barriers preventing them from finding work.

“Work has such big benefits beyond just the paycheck,” he says. “So it’s about creating an attractive image of working.”