Competition for jobs remains tough. According to one measure, there are three people who want a job for every opening in the United States.
But some job seekers also face an internal obstacle in their job hunt: a fear of going back to work.
When workers get laid off, some try to accept the situation as a chance to reinvent themselves. That was the case for a woman named Marie, who lives in a Minneapolis suburb. She has a doctorate in education, and she wanted to forge a new path in that area when she lost a curriculum planning job.
She has asked that MPR not use her last name because she is worried employers might be turned off hearing what happened next.
As it turns out, Marie has subtly done some things to sabotage her own job prospects.
"Part of the sabotage is in the work search itself," she said. "Not following up, not being as aggressive as I should be."
Marie also concedes that she has applied for jobs with companies where she didn't have a good chance of being hired, and doing a half-hearted job with her cover letters.
"If I don't have the energy there, or enthusiasm there, I think it sort of comes through," she said.
Marie, who recognized her self-sabotage about a month ago, thinks she knows why she's doing it. At 58, she's worried employers will think she is too old. She fears rejection, and self-doubt makes her feel depressed.
But she really needs to go back to work. She and her husband have two special needs daughters. Her unemployment insurance runs out soon. Her husband's job could be vulnerable.
The stakes of her self-sabotage are high. But she hasn't discussed it with her husband.
"My not having a job puts stress on him," she said. "Any doubts I might have or any hint I might be depressed sets him into a panic."
But it is not just her depression that holds her back. Her daughters have frequent crises that require her attention and time away from work. She dreads feeling torn between her work and caring for them, as she did at her last job.
"When I had to leave to take care of my daughters or I had to get out of a meeting to answer a phone call, it created friction; it created a lot of pressure," she said. "So I'm sort of afraid I'll be back into that situation of being needed at home and wanting to do my job."
These fears and their effects are common but hidden problems even for people like Marie, with long and successful careers.
Many have angst that is easy to relate to, said Mary White, a job counselor in St. Paul who works for the non-profit organization HIRED, which provides resources for job training job search.
White said lots of people dread change, so it is unsurprising some would fear entering a relationship with a new employer after a traumatic layoff.
"You've been in a relationship with someone you trusted, and where you thought that relationship was good and was going to go some place," White said. "And all of a sudden they reject you... And some people get rejected really badly. They're devastated. And so they don't want to go back into a relationship again."
At a recent support group meeting, White asked clients if fear led them to sabotage their job hunts.
"That's a hard word for them to say, 'Oh yeah, that's what I do,' " White said. "But they all recognized it. I don't think anyone was saying 'No, I don't do that.' "
Former human relations director Alice Ferdinand has seen that fear firsthand, from the employers' side of the table.
"I've had people actually say to me in a telephone interview that they were out of work for so long that they were afraid they'd forgotten how to work," said Ferdinand, who retired in 2010 from a construction and manufacturing company in Lino Lakes.
When her firm had an open position, she found some job applicants desperate, depressed, and already defeated — an attitude that would come through when she asked about their time management skills.
"You'd hear this deep sigh," she said. "And then, reluctantly they'd say, 'I haven't been able to manage my time since I've been off work because I'm anxious, I'm stressed out, because I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to do the job anymore.' "
Ferdinand thinks her grandmotherly manner invited candidates to open up to her. She said their self-doubt was not always an instant disqualifier in an interview. But her decision to proceed hinged on a key question: "Why are you afraid to return to work?"
"If they couldn't answer the question in a way that told me they were prepared to defeat that mindset or self perception, then no," Ferdinand said, when asked if she hired them.
With the pressure on, Marie is trying hard to overcome her negative mindset. Despite decades of taking on big responsibilities at work, she still feels insecure. But her volunteer work at a nonprofit is helping.
"I was recently asked to join the board, and in conversation with board members, I forget about the fear; I just do it. I become alive in a different way," she said. "And then I come home and say, 'I totally did that.' The thinking about it is a barrier."
But without a job, there is, unfortunately, plenty of time to think.
MPRs Public Insight Network assisted in the reporting for this story.