Note: My birthday isn’t today. It’s this month.
All names have been changed. The stories are (mostly) told in order.
Late March. A Monday morning.
Kenneth, my manager, was the one who dropped the bomb on me.
“There’s no other way to put this. I’m sorry,” he said.
I burst into tears. “But why…me?”
Kenneth signed. “This has nothing to do with your job performance. But you heard the announcement from the CEO just now. The startup took a heavy hit from this COVID-19 situation. The leadership team had to review everything about the business. That includes everyone’s jobs. Unfortunately, your job is now redundant.”
“I got laid off. I wanted to say goodbye,” I murmured.
“Oh no, so you were one of…!”
I told him the news I received. “I’m sorry,” he said.
We talked. I said that I’d miss the team a lot. The people at this startup were the warmest and most helpful folks I had ever worked with. They were a big reason why I stayed this long, despite the wild ups and downs the startup has undergone.
I spoke fondly of my team mates. Kenneth, from whom I learnt a lot from. My other team mate who had grown so much since joining as a fresh graduate. The people from other teams who I enjoyed working with or just hanging around with.
Victor hugged me. It was a surprisingly long embrace. I rubbed the back of his shoulder and lay my head against the crook of his neck. I knew the next few months would be tough on him and everyone who was spared from the layoff. Everyone who remained had to accept a pay cut and work harder. “You’ll be all right,” I whispered.
We held hands briefly and said we’d meet again.
He said he wanted to speak to me.
Before the call, I wondered if I would end up yelling at him. I was still angry at having been one of the few who got laid off. This was his decision.
The CEO explained that there was nothing personal about the layoff. Had the startup not been hit so hard by COVID-19, I would have kept my job.
He realised that many people were not buying. Therefore, he decided to trim down the commercial teams. During the months of low or even negative growth ahead, he’d focus on building a robust product. So that when the economy picks up, and people buy again, the startup would have a compelling offering.
“Was there anything I could’ve done to save my job?” I asked.
“Maybe if I had decided to upskill early last year instead of this year…”
“Look. Don’t blame yourself.”
To my shock, he teared up.
He said he enjoyed working with me. “When you’re ready to resume job hunting again, reach out to me. I am happy to help you out.”
I smiled. “Thank you. Thank you especially for building a great workplace culture. I’ve never seen anything like it in my previous companies. This is a rare and precious thing that you’ve built.”
I didn’t yell at the CEO in the end.
“I think this is a blessing in disguise,” said my mum.
I said I didn’t feel very blessed right now.
“Imagine if you had been spared the layoff. For the next few months, you’d have to work harder for less money. Under uncertain business conditions. You’ll be stressed about performing well and keeping your job. Your CEO didn’t promise that this will be the only layoff, right?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“So, there’s a possibility that this new business strategy doesn’t work. Then there could be a second round of layoffs. How horrible it would be to work so hard to keep your job, only to still lose it further down the line. What I’m saying is, if the business is so bad that they have to start laying off people, it’s better for you to go early.”
She had a point. I felt a bit better. But still, it sucked so much to be laid off.
“Fucking COVID-19,” I snapped. “Fuck that virus so hard that it becomes extinct.”
“It has been a week of emotional ups and downs. Anger, sadness, hope, and fear. But today, I feel more emotionally stable.”
“That’s good,” said Leo. Leo was one of many ex-colleagues who reached out to me after the layoff.
We were talking over a WhatsApp call after Leo finished work. Since I got laid off, the Singapore government had implemented stricter virus control measures. Most workplaces were shut. The recommendation was to hold virtual meetings or take calls as much as possible.
“It’s hard enough to get laid off. It’s even harder when my movements are restricted so much. I can’t go on a solo trip. I can’t meet friends over a meal.”
Leo and I agreed that the mental health impact of the pandemic needs more attention. There was already lots of news on the death toll, number of cases, pandemic control measures, and the economic fallout. But not much on the impact on mental health.
I thought about other people like me, dealing with the pain of job loss. People dealing with the stress from the largely negative news coverage. People grappling with the anxiety of forced social isolation.
“I am glad that there are people who care about me and reached out to me. I am grateful for all these conversations I have had. Without them, I would have been even more depressed.”
“You mentioned that you were laid off a couple of times. What happened?”, I asked.
Anna said, “The first time it happened, I was working in Hong Kong. I was part of the first wave of layoffs. After I left, everyone else got laid off.”
She continued, “The second occasion was when I worked at a startup. I was only two months into my job when it happened. About 10 months later, that startup went bankrupt. The startup didn’t even have money to pay its remaining staff their salaries for the previous month! With hindsight, I was lucky to have made it out of there early.”
A blessing in disguise, I thought. Just like what my Mum told me.
“When you were laid off, did you feel betrayed?” I asked. “Sometimes, I feel like this. I was the fourteenth employee and first content marketer. I laid the foundations for various processes and projects. Despite contributing so much, I got laid off.”
“Oh yeah, I felt like that. But remember, even good and capable people get laid off, for reasons that are out of their control. It’s so hard not to take things personally. I know too well. But try.”
She added, “Try to let go of emotions that don’t serve you. Don’t be too harsh on yourself, and give yourself space to heal.”
I told Charlie, “I’m not job hunting for now. We’re pretty much in a recession anyway, so it’s not like there are loads of job opportunities out there.”
Charlie said, “We’re certainly in a recession. This is my first experience dealing with a recession, as a business owner. The last recession I experienced, the 2008 financial crisis, was when I was with the army. Back then, I got a 10% pay cut. A recession is much harder on a business owner.”
He told me that he lost a lot of business opportunities and had to implement pay cuts. He’s worried, but not in dire straits. Unlike many of the people he knows.
Charlie recounted, “A friend of mine got laid off, around the same time as you. His company was also not doing well because of COVID-19. He’s a sole breadwinner. Unfortunately, he has no concrete skills that are in demand, so it will be hard for him to find a job. He even considered being a private hire car driver. But demand for ride-sharing is low at the moment, because there’s a nationwide lockdown. He’s probably going to be a deliveryman.”
I couldn’t imagine being in such a tough position.
“Speaking of skills, what skills do you believe are important to have, moving forward? I have more free time to learn now,” I asked.
“I can’t speak for employees. It’s been so long since I was an employee. I know more about being an entrepreneur.”
“OK, what are the important skills to learn, from an entrepreneur perspective?”
“Sales,” Charlie said without hesitation. “I used to think that marketing is most important. But what’s the point of a strong brand, or even lots of leads, if you aren’t getting customers? So many people shy away from selling, yet sales skills are so important. Sales is not just about pitching and closing deals. There’s also client relations and getting referrals.”
“My plan, moving forward, is to take a sabbatical of at least one month. During my break, I will focus on honing my manga drawing skills. I’ll also develop a few key skills that are useful for my career. I want to be stronger in search engine optimisation, for instance,” I said.
“Sounds like a plan. What else have you been doing in your free time?” asked Yasuko.
“I cook more often these days! Now that I have more time, I can cook my favourite dishes and experiment with new recipes. I’m also nearly done with this video-a-day challenge that I signed up for a couple of years ago. It’s a daily practice that I do to get used to speaking in front of the camera. The goal is to publish 365 videos on any topic. I haven’t always been consistent about it, but now I have about 20 more videos to go.”
“Wow! I’m glad you are moving on with such a positive attitude.”
I beamed. Those were encouraging words, coming from the go getter friend who I look up to.
“Well, the good thing about being unemployed, is that I have loads of free time!”
“Honestly, it hasn’t always been this easy,” I admitted. “The first two weeks after I got laid off were the hardest. I was emotionally unstable. I am happy to say that I am calmer this week. It’s all thanks to people who care enough to have conversations with me, like you. You’ve no idea how much a conversation in these difficult times means to me.”
Hope, I thought, long after our conversation ended. That’s what these conversations represent to me. No one knows for certain what will happen in the next few months. But the support and encouragement we tell each other gives me the strength to move forward.
This wasn’t the birthday I wanted, in many ways.
I didn’t expect to become unemployed and spend the entire April mostly cooped up at home. Outside, there is a pandemic happening worldwide. At this point of writing, Singapore has more than 13,000 COVID-19 cases. Our lockdown, which was initially supposed to end on May 4, will now last until June 1.
I feel so bitter and frustrated at times. Like I’ve lost control over parts of my life.
But this crisis has also made me realise how fortunate I am, in many ways. I have family and friends who care about me. A roof over my head. No debts to clear or large expenses that I must make. Good health. Valuable skills and experiences that are in demand. Etc.
It’s not the first crisis I’ve ever been through. Like all the others, this, too, shall pass.