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For unemployed job-seekers, a day of progress can be more hazardous than one of frustration, study finds

June 1, 2010

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

In the ups and downs that make an unemployed person's job search "a bit of a roller coaster," a day of progress can be as hazardous as a day of frustration, possibly even more so, new research finds. Yes, perceived progress may bring a surge of pleasant feelings and some easing of negative ones, but it also tends to induce coasting, according to an unusual study in the Academy of Management Journal that monitors the day-to-day activities and feelings of 233 unemployed job seekers for up to three weeks.
"Based on this result, we believe it is reasonable to warn job seekers that there is a tendency to take breaks after progress in the search," write the study's authors Connie R. Wanberg of the University of Minnesota, Jing Zhu of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Edwin A. J. van Hooft of the University of Amsterdam. "Our work with job seekers has led us to observe cases where it is dysfunctional for individuals to take a break after perceived progress. Some individuals have a tendency to put 'all of their eggs in one basket,' and presume after applying for and researching a given job that they can take time off, because they are convinced they will get that particular job."
This tendency to let up when they seem to be making progress can be particularly problematic, the study suggests, among job seekers who are low in emotional disengagement -- that is, who have little ability to detach from thoughts that may interfere with achieving a goal. Such people not only tend to respond to positive feelings experienced one day by letting their effort flag the next day; they also lack the capacity to bounce back from a day that has been empty of positive developments.
"Unemployed job-hunters tend to let up after a day of progress and positive feelings, whether the individuals involved are strongly goal-oriented or not," comments Prof. Wanberg. "The big difference is seen after a bad day: people who are strongly goal-oriented shake off the blues and blahs and forge ahead more than ever the next day, while individuals less able to rise above those feelings let their efforts lag. Unemployed job-seekers do well to keep two truths in mind: a job search is a bit of a roller coaster and it's important to keep an emotional balance."
She adds that "job counselors probably ought to do more than is customary to make clients aware that they're not alone in experiencing day-to-day emotional fluctuations and to emphasize that self-regulation is the name of the game. As things stand today, job-search workshops are good at giving the unemployed specific methods and tools for job hunting but don't say much about the flow of the experience and how individuals might best spend their time day to day."
Palpably impinging on the day-to-day flow of the job search, the study finds, is the extent of financial need of the unemployed individual. The greater people's financial hardship, the less heartened they are by perceived progress and the more let down they are by lack of it.
Comments Prof. Wanberg: "When unemployed individuals are financially stressed it's easier to get them down and harder to get them up. This may be something for policy-makers to keep in mind at a time when a lot of people are exhausting their unemployment benefits. The argument is sometimes made that benefit extensions are a disincentive to seeking work, but earlier research by our group has shown that only a small minority of the unemployed are out to milk the system and that most people are embarrassed at not working."
Still, the professor concedes, one of the current study's most striking findings is the relatively small amount of time most job seekers devote daily to their searches. Close to 44% of the participants in the study spent less than three hours a day looking for a new position, with another 17% averaging three to four hours a day.
"The standard advice to the unemployed," Dr. Wanberg observes, "is to treat a job search like a full-time job. Yet, only about 7% of our sample devoted six hours or more daily looking for work, while over 60% devoted a half day or less. True, research has not determined how many hours a week is optimal, but it has shown that the more hours per week or per day one devotes to a job search, the greater one's chances of finding a job. In any event, spending three or four hours a day or less certainly doesn't amount to a full-time effort."
The finding, she adds, is consistent with earlier research that finds unemployed workers to be natural targets for family tasks that may consume a lot of time. "Individuals who are unemployed," explains the professor, "appear to others to have plenty of time, so that there tends to be less inhibition than there might otherwise be to impose upon them. The jobless may feel constrained to cooperate, since, after all, they do have a lot of time at their disposal, but the unfortunate result is that they are distracted from an effort that deserves to be their highest priority."
The study may very well be unique in its focus on "what happens within the job search from day to day," an aspect of unemployment that has received virtually no previous research attention. Participants who had been out of work for an average of about 16 weeks were recruited among unemployment-insurance recipients who were attending a required session at a work-force center. The 233 individuals in the final sample  -- 56% male, 88% white, and 61% in professional, technical or managerial occupations -- were asked to complete a baseline survey and then an online survey each Monday to Friday for three consecutive weeks. Each weekday, at any point between 4 PM and midnight (and at no other time), they reported online about their job search that day, detailing the extent of their positive and negative feelings, the amount of time devoted to job search, and how much confidence they had of finding an acceptable job. Participants completed an average of 12 daily Web surveys, including 32 individuals who were reemployed or accepted a job offer, at which point their daily online responses ceased.
The new study, entitled "The Job-Search Grind: Perceived Progress, Self-Reactions, and Self-Regulation of Search Effort," will be in the August issue of the The Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the academy, which, with more than 19,000 members in 103 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives and Academy of Management Learning and Education
Media Coverage:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Working Strategies: My Very Different Views on Job Search, Unemployment Help. (Tuesday, August 10, 2010).
FINS. Job hunting is often one step forward, two steps back. (Friday, July 16, 2010). 13 Big Mistakes Job Seekers Make. (Tuesday, September 28, 2010). Thirteen Big Mistakes Job Seekers Make, and How to Avoid Them. (Friday, September 30, 2011). The daily stat: Job-seeking hardly a "full-time job" for most unemployed. (Tuesday, June 29, 2010). - Minnesota Public Radio. Unemployed? Watch out for those pleasant feelings. (Thursday, July 22, 2010).
St. Paul Pioneer-Press. Job hunting really is a full-time job, experts say. (Thursday, August 05, 2010).
The Globe & Mail. On the job hunt, success can lead to setback. (Friday, July 02, 2010).
WorkWise. Reality Check. (Monday, July 26, 2010). Unemployed people take a day off. (Thursday, July 22, 2010).

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