Another round of layoffs hits the office, decimating the teams of people who have worked together, in some cases, for decades. After the shock and initial relief that their job is still in place, remaining employees can begin to question their survival and experience feelings of guilt.
Employment psychologists and management professionals are talking more about the phenomenon of Survivor Syndrome and its effects on the workplace. The term that once was reserved for those who cheated death, is now being used to explain the depression and guilt felt by the millions of workers who have watched their colleagues join the unemployment lines, while they inexplicably, at least to themselves, have retained their jobs.
Survivor guilt has the potential to do as much damage to a company’s financial health as a down economic climate. Sinking morale affects more than just the individual worker. Its influence can affect an entire organization’s productivity and efficiency‑its ability to survive. The mixed emotions that surface after layoffs typically range from relief to sadness to guilt to anger, much the same as what is experienced during other times of loss. From an organizational perspective, how management handles staff reductions and the relationship it has with the remaining workers is an important component of a company’s ultimate survival.
There are things that management can do to lessen the effect of layoffs on remaining staff. Although simple, these steps are routinely skipped which contributes to the stress and lack of focus that can set into a workforce.
Communicate with the Workforce
When layoffs take place, it is often without warning. Although, the state of the economy is not a secret to anyone, management has a tendency to keep the health of their business to themselves. Discussing in general terms the current condition of the company gives employees a sense of inclusiveness. It can also spark renewed commitment and focus among staff.
Set Realistic Workload Expectations
The tasks that need to be completed rarely disappear with the loss of staff. Even if the volume of business has decreased, retained employees find themselves with more responsibilities after a layoff, as there are fewer people to do the job. Adding an unrealistic workload onto employees creates a negative and lasting impression. Companies that do not approach the impact of layoffs on retained staff appropriately are in greater risk of high turnover once the recession has eased as shown by a University of Wisconsin-Madison study (Trevor, Nyberg).
Acknowledge the Emotional Impact
It is important for management to recognize and acknowledge the impact on employees’ emotions that the layoffs cause. Failure to accept the reality of survivor guilt and act to support affected staff can compound both the negative workplace atmosphere and the staffs’ feelings of depression, fear, and a lack of control. These emotions have very real consequences on productivity, effectiveness, and flexibility, all of which are required for an organization to meet current economic hardships and the future rebound successfully.