Jobs: How Unemployment Is Straining Friendships

For Betsy Storm, things aren't so bad. The communications firm she runs is flush with clients, and even though her husband's company was acquired earlier this year, he's managed to hold on to his job and his salary. In this economy, the Chicago couple's story is something of an anomaly: two 50-somethings who haven't seen their savings completely vanish or had to kiss their retirement plans goodbye. And that's why Betsy feels terrible. "Within the last four months, my three best friends have lost their jobs," she says. "And it's awkward. My husband and I can't be too excited right now."

What a difference a year makes. Last April, The New York Times ran an article titled "Not-So-Personal Finance" that showed how Americans, 20-somethings especially, had become so comfortable with their salaries that they didn't mind telling friends how much they were earning. These days, that would just seem rude. Last week, the government reported that 663,000 jobs were cut in March; the unemployment rate has reached 8.5 percent, the highest point since 1983. So talking about salary, even discussing the simple fact of still being employed, often isn't an option for the Storms and others unaffected by massive unemployment.

For younger employed adults, that could mean no longer discussing new apartments, comparing salaries or asking the standby question "So, how's the job going?" If you're in your 30s or 40s, a topic not to bring up may include your luxurious summer-vacation plans. Fifties and 60s? Investments, property and retirement are first on the list of dinner-party taboos. These days, money talk has climbed to the top of social no-nos. "You don't want to rub your good fortune in a friend's face," says Peter Post, a director at the Emily Post Institute for etiquette. "So you should temper enthusiasm for your own personal well-being."

Storm is glad to have a job, of course, but she's now dealing with the challenges of navigating the relationships with her laid-off friends, which require a more delicate touch. Often, she's thinking of ways to save money. Last month, she was planning a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago with a pal. "Instead of seeing if she wanted to get lunch or dinner," Storm remembers, "I asked her if she wanted to grab some coffee." For friends living out of town, she's made quick five-minute phone calls to check up—"they're not used to being at home all day"—and sent handwritten cards.

Directly confronting a friend's job loss can be awkward, but ignoring it isn't helpful, says Dr. Joseph Cilona, a New York City psychologist who specializes in counseling executives. According to Cilona, asking about a friend's job search is one of the best ways to both help that friend and deal with your own guilt. "Most people don't have prior experience with [such] situations and no model to guide them as to what to do or say," he says. "This can sometimes result in not saying anything due to fears of being hurtful or embarrassing. Ironically, this avoidance [itself] often does cause hurt and embarrassment."

There are several more oblique ways to acknowledge a friend's new unemployment, including taking them out for a night on the town. "Offer to treat them to dinner before the movie, or invite them over for a simple meal and let them know much you enjoy cooking," says Dr. Nancy Irwin, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. "We all need to save money anyway."

Still, it's important not to treat your friends like charity cases. "All you can think to do is make a casserole," says Amy Campbell, who has struggled with how to help her newly jobless friends. "But then it's like, 'Wait, they're not destitute.' I don't want to suggest that maybe this person can't afford food." Campbell, who lives in a small Michigan town and works for a company that builds homes, has seen how Detroit's near collapse has rippled through the state. For the past four months, she's dealt with several "to casserole or not to casserole" social dilemmas. When one friend was having trouble selling her home, Campbell offered to set her up with a local real-estate agent who might know the community better. Trying to be helpful, she's also joked about quitting her job as a show of solidarity. "An immature response, I know," she says.

But anxietywise, who really has it worse: the unemployed or those still punching in at the office? A study released by Cambridge University last month found that people who have survived layoffs at their workplaces and who continue to worry about losing their own jobs suffer more mentally than those who were laid off. While the unemployed reach a low point after six months, those continually on the cusp of losing a job see declining mental health for up to three years. And of course no job is perfect. So if the employed can't turn to close friends to share office complaints, or are made to think that they should feel lucky that they even have jobs, how do they cope with stress? Reckless behavior, according to some doctors. "Right now, it feels really bad to complain about work, so more of my patients are turning to a few extra cocktails alone, or prescription-drug abuse at work to get them through the days," says Dr. Carrie Wilkens, the clinical director at New York's Center for Motivation and Change.

While that's an extreme example of the potential effects of the current economic climate, it's also a reminder that dealing with stressors, whether you're employed or unemployed, is important. "If you feel like you can't talk to your friend who is unemployed, that's completely reasonable," Wilkens says. "Maybe you need to turn to other colleagues who have managed to hang on to their jobs—they'll know what you're going through." Well, at least until one of you gets laid off.