November 3 2020
James Fellowes, Founder and CEO of Bridge of Hope describes his journey from privilege to unemployment, in a blithely honest way. Read more to find out how unemployment impacted on his mental health and why he set up Bridge of Hope.
Let me restate that one more time in case you are in any doubt. Unemployment completely and utterly sucks. Take it from an expert.
I was born lucky. I started life with everything, a paid-up member of the ‘lucky sperm club’, blissful childhood, privileged education, a seemingly charmed existence with untold access to opportunity and a ‘fat track’ career pathway mapped out for life.
That is until 3pm on April 16th, 2009. When my role as a Senior Drinks Industry Executive based in America was made redundant and I was unemployed for the first time.
Unemployment happens to other people!
Prior to this life changing moment, unemployment was something that happened…well to ‘other people’. People who may be didn’t work as hard as me, people who perhaps weren’t as good at their jobs as me – or God forbid – people who had screwed up. Bottom line, after 23 years of upward career mobility and continuous employment working for two global leading organisations – life was good, and unemployment was somebody else’s problem.
Then the music stopped and terrifyingly there was no chair left for me. The fact that I had been made redundant purely as a result of the ‘Great Recession’ was frankly irrelevant. Suddenly, in the time it took for a three-minute telephone call, my cherished ‘status’ went into freefall, I was no longer charging hard in the all-important ‘fast lane’ and certainly I could certainly forget about being seen as a successful corporate ‘player’ anymore. Just like that, in the blink of an eye, I had a new downgraded persona – a loser, an abject failure. Above all I was utterly consumed by a feeling of appalling shame. Shame, as to how I had so catastrophically failed my family.
I was unemployed SEVEN times
Over the following decade (from hell) I was to find myself unemployed no less than seven times. Yes, you read that right. SEVEN. Multiple redundancies, one excruciating firing (don’t go there), the agony of two -oh so close – but ultimately failed entrepreneurial ventures and even being medically discharged post being unconditionally sectioned. A previously unimaginable nightmare triggered by a potent cocktail of the above employment woes, blend in a couple of swindlers, two sociopaths and topped up with undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
After my little sojourn in a psychiatric ward outside New York – a unique hospitality venue, inexplicably not featured in Trip Advisor – I returned to the UK and experienced what can only be described as a cataclysmic life crash losing (almost) everything I valued on the entire planet.
I had never experienced discrimination before
As a white, middle-class married male I had never previously experienced any form of job discrimination up and until this point. Frankly, I sailed over all the potential discrimination hurdles, well before walking through the door. But suddenly there it was. Gratuitous discrimination, staring me in the eye and strutting its fancy stuff. Suddenly I was too old, I was now over-qualified (WTF), and since I had a mental health condition, I was pretty well untouchable. Not that any of these reasons were ever given. Just, well implied. For the first time in my life I got a little taster of what it was like to be born on the ‘wrong side of the track’, to have the ‘wrong’ colour skin, to talk or behave in the ‘wrong’ way. A hideous, unjust world were actual talent and capability were well, nice to have.
Starting back at zero
So, since noone would employ me at the start of my long journey back, I took the only job I could get within biking range of my mother’s cottage – assistant cleaner in the frozen meat division of a local food processing plant. Zero hour contract, minimum wage and and all at numbingly cold minus 50 degrees. The health & safety guidance – if your eyelids froze up then get out quick before hyperthermia kicked in! How the mighty had fallen. But at least it was a paid job and I stuck it out for five long months until an opportunity to get back on the career ladder – several rungs lower – finally arrived.
As anyone who has been out of work can attest, there are frankly ZERO redeeming features to unemployment. Forget the hackneyed clichés about spending more time with your family or the precious new-found time being a wonderful opportunity to learn new skills. That – as us Brits like to say – is complete bollocks and frankly downright ignorant. If you think that, you obviously haven’t been unemployed!
If you want an analogy, look no further than a ticking time bomb, because that is how it really feels. Your Mission (almost) Impossible – find a new job in a role that appeals, offering the right compensation, in a company that suits, at a location that works and all before the tick, tick, ticking stops.
Was I unemployable?
Until this point I was guilty of being hugely ignorant and I am ashamed to say, somewhat dismissive about the subject myself. Like so many, I completely took for granted that deeply under rated concept of a regular pay cheque. Until it stopped arriving that is, and suddenly I could no longer pay the bills.
I also had no clue what effect unemployment would have on my own state of mind or psyche. Bottomline, for me, being jobless was like a tsunami trashing my self-worth and obliterating my self-confidence to complete smithereens. Little did I know at the time, that it was also the ‘classic’ trigger for the downside of bipolar disorder. The dreaded depression bit and something deeply counterintuitive to an unswerving optimist such as myself.
Suddenly people crossed the street to avoid the awkward conversation or they talked in muted tones when I walked in the room. Or was I just paranoid? The sleepless nights, the rewriting of CVs, the uncaring recruiters avoiding my ever-more desperate calls and above all the soul sucking cycle of endless rejection. After rejection. Until when I looked in the mirror, I could longer recognise my own haunted reflection. Which begged the previously unimaginable question. Was I simply unemployable?
It felt like a street fight!
At times, it felt like being in a petrifying street fight down some dark alley strictly adhering to Queensbury rules. Fighting a bare-knuckled Mike Tyson, with a large baseball bat and a grudge. The odds seemingly insurmountable. This was not a job search, this was a fight for survival of everything that mattered to me in the world. I needed to find reserves of resilience and strength I never knew existed. Failure was simply not an option. My rallying cry to my former self staring at me in the mirror. Dig deeper than ever before. Never let go of hope. Never, ever give up and above all, stay in the fight. After all it takes just ONE punch.
And then, out of blue it happened. Seven times in nine years. I landed THE punch. Tyson hit the cobbles. An actual job offer! Gainful employment. Miracles of miracles, an exciting new role checking the above boxes and signed on the dotted line before the proverbial clock stopped ticking. There you go. Someone actually believed in ME!
The sheer unadulterated ecstasy, giddy euphoria, the newfound bounce in my step and above all the utter and total relief!! I was BACK!
After all, a job provides for your family, a job is rocket fuel to your self-worth, a job feeds hope. Bottom line, a job changes everything.
So, in 2018, when I was made redundant – unemployed – for the seventh time, I had my own ‘epiphany moment’ and decided to ‘exit right’ from the corporate world once and for all and move to the Third Sector to try to ‘change the world’ and ideally give hope to others less fortunate.
How exactly? I had no clue. But one thing I knew for sure I had some kind of personal calling – cliched as that may sound – and any potential new social venture would involve employment and jobs in some manner or other.
Why? Because everyone deserves the right to employment. And because unemployment sucks. Take it from an expert.
About James Fellowes
James is Founder of Bridge of Hope, and Head of Partnerships: The Resume Foundation & Prosper 4
The Bridge of Hope is the missing link between charities and universities with ‘Untapped Talent’ and inclusive employers seeking to be more diverse with jobs to fill.
The Bridge of Hope Untapped Talent Portal is starting its beta phase right now. Featuring talent from over 50 charities, 12,000 diverse and inclusive candidates and over 5,000 vacancies.
Non-profits and widening participation universities – get in touch if you have untapped talent seeking meaningful employment. Inclusive employers – get in touch if you want to proactively source exceptional diverse talent from our untapped talent pools.
Like this blog? Read ‘ Covid-19. Making more inclusive workplaces’ here.
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