Shining Light on the Black Hole of Unemployment

Activ'Action helps people use the time during unemployment to increase their skills, build confidence and empower themselves.

von Maugan Dixon, May 4, 2017

Loss of self-esteem and self-confidence, loneliness, feelings of uselessness, loss of ambition… All proof that the “black hole of unemployment” really does exist. If you’ve ever been unemployed, as most of us have been at one point or another, you’ve experienced one or more of these feelings. 

Activ’Action inverts this reality. Their goal is to help people use the time during unemployment to increase their skills, build confidence and empower themselves. In doing so, they aim to turn unemployment into a positive experience. 

In this Changers Around the World interview, we spoke with Emilie Schmitt, the founder of Activ’Action. Based in France, Emilie was unemployed when she first started Activ’Action and quickly realized she wasn't the only one struggling. Since its inception in June 2014, Activ’Action has organized over 250 workshops in 15 cities and 4 countries. In this interview, Emilie coaches us on how to overcome negative feelings and shares her experience of personal empowerment. 

Although no two people are alike, what are the most common problems of unemployed people that make unemployment such a negative experience?

Our workshops ask people about what negative feelings they've experienced during unemployment. What comes up almost every time is the feeling of loneliness. Nowadays, work is still the best way to meet new people, to show your abilities, to develop your competencies, to interact with others and share your dreams, your doubts and your beliefs. Even if you don't like your job, you still have your colleagues - or the clients or suppliers - with whom you create social links. You have a place in the society. 

So, when you don't have a job anymore, the number of your connections with others drops dramatically. Unknowingly, your place in society is reduced, which leads to the feeling of uselessness and the belief that you have no more competencies, because you have less occasions to use them. Cue the "black hole of unemployment".

Activ’Action is unconventional in that it does not focus CVs and resumes, yet it was founded to help jobseekers. How do your workshops and other services help people to progress in the world of work?

As consequence of negative feelings (loss of self-esteem and self-confidence, loneliness, feelings of uselessness, loss of ambition …), unemployment makes many feel as though they are not good enough to apply for the job they want and it reduces their energy, motivation and confidence. The result? It undermines unemployed people’s employability and takes them away from job opportunities. On a personal level this represents a huge loss of potential and can be economically crippling!

That's why in our workshops we first focus on tackling the negative feelings we all have experienced in our lifetime; finding concrete solutions to implement directly and remembering that everyone can take small personal actions to overcome these feelings. So that you get enough energy to imagine, adapt yourself, get over the rejections and find a reason to go out. 

In addition we use the time we have during unemployment to increase our skills and empower ourselves. We train participants to facilitate the workshops, organise events to share their passions and competencies, and create new workshops themselves. This gives participants CV-worthy experiences. 

Finally, you don't have to be ashamed of your period of unemployment and you can even highlight it during your interviews, explaining what you've learned. The most important thing is that everything is done in a collaborative way so you enlarge your network by getting to know a lot of new people you might never been in touch with otherwise.  

The outcome is that our members go to job interviews with more self-confidence, knowing what motivates them, showing how active they are during their unemployed period and being aware of their key soft-skills and what they want to offer to the company.

You founded Activ’Action when you were unemployed yourself. What inspired this idea and how did you begin to make it a reality?

I experienced all these feelings when I was looking for my first job, I started to dream less and had less ambitions. What a good start in life! (Not). When I understood that I was also dependent on the context I live in, I realized how many people might be in a similar situation to the one I was faced with - what a huge and unfair loss of potential! 

So, together with my co-founder, we decided to think about what we could do on a personal level. That's how we started to imagine what could be Activ'Action. We first met a lot of professionals to get their feedback. Following this, we participated in the Sensecube’s ‘incubation’ program, part of the MakeSense social start-up accelerator. After one month of incubation, we decided to test our first workshop: the Activ'Boost. The participant feedback was so much better than we expected - none of us had any experience in creating workshops, and even less in facilitating them. At this point we knew our intuition was right and that we were answering a real social need.

That was in June 2014. Since then we have trained 70 people to facilitate the Activ'Boost, we created 2 other workshops and organized more than 250 workshops for 1,500 participants in 15 cities (in 4 different countries). All of this was achieved with almost no funds at all, only with passion, dedication and confidence in others. Which proves even more our first belief: you don't need a diploma or even strong experience to begin to achieve what you want.

How has founding Activ’Action been a tool of development for you personally?

I always wanted to start my own social business and my plan was to first work in a social business to get some experience, money and grow a network. But when I started Activ’Action, I had almost none of these things. I had to learn to do a lot through experience, with a quick turnaround. That gave me self-confidence and taught me that I'm able to adapt and learn new things anytime in a fast-changing world. That is very valuable to me.

But Activ'Action gave me so much more on a personal level; I gained faith in human beings and hope for the future. I'm still amazed every time I facilitate workshops by how easily people get to help each other, simply by creating a space of trust and kindness, where everyone feels respected. And it's not that hard to create this kind of space.    

I wish everyone could have an amazing supportive work team that cares about each other’s personal goals, fears and dreams. Because if we change our point of view and cultural habits about work, as a colleague, manager, boss, government or citizen, then work becomes an amazing space where you can discover yourself, enrich yourself with others beliefs, get out of your comfort zone and create social and economic value to make the world a better place, however you conceptualise that. 

For those of us who are struggling in our own career journey, what tips do you have for overcoming negative feelings? 

We all have the resources within ourselves to overcome our negative feelings, but sometimes we need to remember that fact, or we need someone else to show them to us. Don't be afraid to talk about your negative feelings. Don’t be ashamed of them.

They are great signals to show you what you need to do to be happier, what you want to achieve in your life or which kind of environment you want to work in. For example, if you fear not to be good enough for a job, that means you're someone who cares a lot about doing a great job, making a difference and making useful contributions in your place of work.

If you're stressed by uncertainty, that could mean you need to create a personal life-plan (and if that sounds like you, here is a little how to on creating your life plan). Alternatively, you may benefit from finding a goal-oriented manager.

Are your ambitions decreasing and becoming less of a reality? Maybe you should take care of your self-esteem and self-confidence.

Here’s an example:

I feel stressed.


Because I feel I'm incompetent.

Why do you feel incompetent? 

Because I can't finish my work on time.

Why you can't finish it on time? 

Because I take more time on my tasks that I planned.

Why do you take more time than planned? 

Because I'm easily distracted by my emails or FB notifications.  

One action you can take to change the situation: creating space in your agenda to work on a specific task and turning off your notifications.

The “5 Whys Technique” comes from the business field, but I think it can be used to find the roots of emotional problems as well. These are several answers to why we experience negative feelings; identifying them can be seen as an opportunity of self-empowerment.

The services you offer are free of charge. How have you managed to gain funding and what is your advice for other start-up organisations on how to approach funding?

In the beginning it was supported by our own funds (which means the money we got from the state as unemployed people), because as we were young and "unqualified" to work in this field, we had to prove that our solution is having a concrete impact. Now that we have more networks and more testimonies from participants, we can sell our expertise to different organisations: city hall, social structures, enterprises...

My advice would be: NETWORK! Everything gets so much easier if you know the right people; you can talk to them, answer their questions, they might see the sparkle of passion in your eyes and help you pass the next hurdle (or ones that present themselves later).   

What’s planned for Activ’Action in 2016? 

In 2016, we plan to reach 6,000 participants attending our workshops and 10,000 with the launch of our collaborative web platform. The idea behind the platform is to give people a forum to access our methodologies and get inspired by our community members, even if there are no workshops planned in your city. 

And why not come to Germany, any volunteers? ;) If you'd like to get involved, contact me

Photo credit: Evelien Buynsters

In our "Changers Around the World" series we profile innovative and successful initiatives in order to share learnings and inspiration from around the globe. 

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