When the "RIF" rumors" start circulating, says career counselor Suzanne Howard, "the body's first reaction is one of tremendous stress. People feel a sense of rejection and loss -- for themselves, for their jobs, for their agency.

"Depending on the person and the position, common reactions are anger, frustration and fear. But when they recover from the emotional stages, they'd better face reality and get a grip on their job goals."

This period of uncertainty, she says, "can be a time for people to take a fresh look at their career interests, values and skills."

Howard, who holds a doctorate in education, "made the big plunge" of starting her own education and career consulting business last year when her employer -- the American Association of University Women -- underwent a reorganization.

"It's scarey," she admits, "but exciting, too."

To mitigate the stress, Howard suggests that you:

Form a support group , as HHS employes have. "It should provide emotional support because few things are harder on the ego than a job hunt. But it should be more than just sitting together holding hands."

The most helpful support groups, she says, consist of six to eight people "who have something in common -- like being at similar grade levels or in similar fields. They could take action to find out their job rights, plan a career-counseling program, discuss alternate job options and network to help each other find jobs."

Get involved in a project . "Use this time to capitalize on an interest of yours. This could be both a distraction -- if you don't have much work to do -- and a vehicle to get you into contact with people who might be possible job sources."

Try to deflect boredom and anxiety . "Instead of sitting there biting your nails, read books you've always wanted to read, pick up a craft you haven't had time for, work on your job hunt."

To use the time to your career's advantage, she advises:

Reassess your skills, goals, needs and desires . "Start by listing everything you can't stand about your present job. Then translate that into positives, about qualities you'd want in a future job."

Make contacts in your field . Tell everyone you know that you may be looking for a job. "Even if you think your job might not be affected, I would start looking anyway. The (job-hunting) process takes a long time."

Inform decision-makers of your desire to stay with the agency, if that is what you want. "Don't assume that they can read your mind."

Seek career counseling . Read career-advancement books, attend workshops and/or consult an individual counselor. (Howard charges $50 an hour for her career advice, and will consult with individuals or groups.) A Job Hunter's Kit, which she helped put together while at AAUW, is available for $10.75 by writing her at 402 Tennessee Ave., Alexandria, Va. 22305.