Layoffs are rarely easy for anyone involved. You and your employees are left with looming anxiety as the company you know now changed. Among the fear of company stability, job security, and feelings of loss as they witness their former co-workers leave, employees may find themselves with corporate survivor’s guilt.
Even though the remaining employees may be called “the lucky ones” for still having a job, that doesn’t mean they are unaffected by downsizing. You must address survivors’ guilt to limit further damage to your company or an employee’s mental health.
What is Corporate Survivor’s Guilt?
When companies and organizations start to ‘let people go’ or lay off some of their workforces, there can be an emotional toll on those left behind. The emotional impact is what organizational psychologists call corporate survivors’ guilt or workplace survivors syndrome. It is defined as:
Much like traditional survivor’s guilt, where someone experienced a traumatic event or loss in their life, corporate survivor’s guilt can have a widespread effect on a person’s mental health.
While losing a job is life-changing, studies found it can be as hard on those who stay at the organization as those who are let go.
The remaining employees remain in a changing organization with guilt that they remained and others did not and an increased workload.
How Survivor’s Guilt Affects Employees
Organizational changes within a company cause a ripple effect in normal circumstances. When those changes are brought on by other employees being ‘let go,’ the emotional impact can be even more significant. In someone suffering from corporate survivors’ guilt, they might find their mental health worsening.
Mental Health Symptoms of Corporate Survivor’s Guilt:
- Feelings of uncertainty, betrayal, distrust, resentment
- Increased alcohol consumption
- Increased use of smoking
- Confusion with organizational changes
- Increased feelings of loneliness
Organizational Outcomes of Layoffs
- Increased workplace injury
- Decreased morale
- Risk Avoidance
- Loss of productivity
- Reduced engagement
- Reduced motivation
Recognizing the effect survivor’s guilt can have on employees is essential. Doing this will equip you with the tools to recover your workplace after downsizing.
5 Ways to Ease Corporate Survivor’s Guilt
Emotional responses to corporate layoffs are normal. How your company chooses to respond to survivor’s guilt is essential. Here are five ways to help your employees overcome guilt and avoid further disruption.
1. Get Help from Mental Health Professionals
Employees must fully process their emotions to recover from downsizing. For some, they may be able to do this on their own, and for others, they may require professional help.
You must provide a safe space where employees can communicate frustrations, guilt, grief, or other feelings associated with their survivor’s guilt.
To do this, seek external professionals to help aid this process. One tool organizations use is the Employee Assistance Program. The providers, through this program, can help lead discussions to help facilitate healthy communication of their feelings.
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Other Ways to Help Improve Mental Health
In addition to bringing in outside help, you can do a few things in-house.
- One of which is providing additional wellness breaks.
- Create employee support groups where they can talk to their peers about the changes
- Find ways to increase social engagement to build new connections in your changed company
2. Reduce Expectations
Expecting less from employees after losing some of your workforce may seem counterproductive. However, pushing your employees to pretend business as usual isn’t realistic.
According to a study done by Leadership IQ, “74% of employees who kept their job amidst a corporate layoff say their own productivity has declined since the layoff.”
Additionally, “64% of surviving workers say the productivity of their colleagues has declined.”
Your employees will have emotions they will need to work process. Feelings like guilt, anxiety, and insecurity are known to affect productivity.
Without decreased expectations, the company can exacerbate an employee’s worsening mental health, reducing productivity.
Employees need time to adjust to workload and organizational changes. They need a “Mourning Period” before expecting them to reach productivity benchmarks. Therefore, taking action to lower expectations for some time is crucial.
3. Be Transparent in your Communication
When addressing your workforce after layoffs, you must be transparent about the organization’s happenings.
Employees will likely feel uncertain about their roles, company, and future layoffs. This anticipatory grief or anxiety will breed distrust in leadership if things are not adequately communicated.
Why be Transparent?
In the study by Leadership IQ mentioned previously, they found that workers who felt their managers were visible and approachable were 72% less likely to report decreased productivity. From a production standpoint, this will help.
Additionally, employees will naturally harbor negative feelings toward the company during downsizing. The more you can do to rebuild trust and community, the quicker these feelings will diminish.
Communication will build trust. It may seem difficult to open up about the reason for downsizing– to admit failure. However, employees who can see that their company will keep open and honest communication will be more likely to trust their company.
Additionally, transparency will avoid potential issues like whistleblowing and other problems that tarnish an organization’s reputation.
Ways to maintain transparency:
- Do not leave employees to guess about the changes. Whether through an email or a meeting, be clear about the who, what, and why of the layoff.
- Inform workers of what changes are happening because of the layoffs. How do their roles change? How will the company change? Leave no known change unspoken.
- Send updated organizational charts. List management groups, role expectations, and chain of command to ensure each employee understands the organizational changes.
- Conduct regular check-ins and ask for feedback. It is a time of adjustment. Some things may work, and some things may not. You and your employee need to understand what is not working.
Be Available to Talk about Difficult Topics.
Someone with survivor guilt will likely suffer from anxiety during this change. You must remain available to address all questions. Do your best to address topics they want to discuss and avoid skirting around the answer. Instead, be direct and honest.
To collect questions from your workers, you can reach out personally or ask frontline managers to contact individuals for further questions and concerns.
One question an employee will want to know is the possibility of further layoffs. Never promise layoffs are complete, and things will be ok. There is no way to be sure of this, and employees will likely not believe it. Do, however, address their concerns and give them what you know.
Wherever questions come your way, if you keep your door open to two-way honest and effective communication, your workforce will be more resilient and more likely to recover.
4. Provide team-building opportunities
One of the significant impacts of layoffs that lead to corporate survivor guilt is a loss of social circle. Inevitably, your surviving employees will have lost a co-worker with whom they enjoyed working. This can leave them feeling unmotivated to return and with increased loneliness.
An employee suffering from decreased mental health will need to form new connections with remaining colleagues in the workplace. As your team creates new relationships, they will find new ways to cope with changing roles and responsibilities.
To encourage connection, you can encourage managers to assign people who haven’t worked together to complete a project or task. Additionally, there are other ways to build connections. Consider implementing some of the following ideas:
- Host celebrations
- Create a company book club or other activity clubs
- Create volunteer programs
- Provide additional opportunities for colleagues to interact outside of tasks and projects.
Whatever you choose to implement, it is wise to set an example and create new connections yourself. Don’t be afraid to participate in social interaction, as it will foster open communication and accessibility.
5. Show Appreciation
After a round of layoffs, feelings will be raw. There will likely be added pressure, anxiety, and an increased workload.
While it is always a good idea to show appreciation to your employees, it is vital to do so after a change in the workforce.
Your employees will be taking on added responsibilities, learning new skills, and going through a lot of change. Take a small amount of time, say 15 minutes a month, to be intentional about showing appreciation.
One simple and effective way to do this is by writing a personalized card. Let employees know they are doing a good job. Compliment their performance, adaptability, positive attitude, or whatever big or small things they do to improve the company in the time of change.
Your acknowledgment will go a long way in improving community, productivity, and survivor’s guilt. It also will increase employee retention as they feel heard and seen for their efforts to help the company recover.
While layoffs are sometimes necessary, expecting surviving employees to return to feel like “one of the lucky ones” after downsizing is unrealistic. Many employees struggle with the anxiety, anger, and uncertainty of corporate survivor’s guilt. If corporate survivor guilt remains unaddressed, this can lead to decreased morale and productivity and even result in further employee loss.
Your job after a layoff is not about showing an employee the silver linings but instead helping them process the changes. As you work to ease the guilt, your employees and company can bounce back stronger and more resilient.