So, it happened. Your company just undertook considerable downsizing and laid off several employees. It was a difficult decision, but it was determined that it was the best course of action for the organization as a whole. Now, you can get back to normal. Right?
Don’t expect things to be business as usual. Employees may go through a range of emotions when a wave of layoffs hit the workforce, from stress and uncertainty to panic and mistrust. The people whose jobs are still in tact may be relieved, but they may also experience something called corporate survivors’ guilt, also referred to as workplace survivor syndrome or layoff survivor stress.
Guilt can make an individual feel like they did something wrong, even if they didn’t. Employees may feel a sense of unease at still having a job when they had to watch some of their colleagues be let go. In this article, we’ll go over the phenomenon of post-layoff guilt in a workplace setting: how it comes to be and how you can help mitigate it.
What is corporate survivors’ guilt?
Survivors’ guilt refers to the feeling someone might have when those around them experience a loss and they do not. It typically refers to someone who survived a traumatic and possibly life-threatening event, but the psychology that goes into this experience can infiltrate other situations, such as in the workplace.
It can lead to depression and anxiety as these individuals navigate their feelings about their teammates’ departures, which may lead to them questioning why their jobs were spared while their colleagues’ were cut. Layoffs, and the ensuing corporate survivors’ guilt, can be detrimental to an organization’s morale and the mental health of those on the team.
These feelings of survivor guilt can occur at both the organizational and the individual level. Stressful situations like layoffs can lead to profound feelings of grief. This could be felt on the organizational level if employees start to distrust management and feel less engaged in their work.
For example, let’s say a social media marketing company called Reel Solutions just let five employees go. The remaining team members are upset that colleagues they admired, respected and enjoyed working with are no longer part of the team. Lisa is upset that the role of her desk mate Becky was one of the jobs eliminated, so she won’t get to see her work friend when she comes in each day, something she really looked forward to. Paul is angry that his go-to project partner Robert was laid off, someone with whom he always came up with great ideas. Due to their negative feelings about the situation, Lisa and Paul might feel less engaged in their work, and they also might have less trust in the leadership of the company.
Corporate survivors’ guilt is also experienced on the individual level through the various feelings a person might go through after seeing several of their colleagues lose their jobs. The sequence of emotions could go like this. Rumors of layoffs are swirling around the Reel Solutions office for weeks. Lisa and Paul are worried for the future of their jobs, and they wonder if they should start updating their resumes if they’re among the unlucky few who will be on the job hunt after downsizing. They’re relieved when layoffs are complete and they’re still employed, which is immediately followed by feelings of guilt. How can they be relieved when Becky and Robert lost their jobs? Those emotions of worry and stress, followed by relief and feeling bad, feed into the corporate survivors guilt cycle.
Factors for corporate survivors’ guilt
Our society has weathered some turbulent times the past few years, from a devastating pandemic to increased costs of living and rising interest rates. Many companies worked to cut costs when the coronavirus pandemic was wreaking havoc on the economy and many sectors of society were facing deep uncertainty about what the future would hold. The job market has also since cooled, which may make it harder to find new employment.
Constantly hearing about layoffs in the news, or murmurings of potential downsizing at one’s own company, can have deep impacts on one’s mental health and make it difficult to focus on the job. Losing your position or career overnight is often an emotionally and financially devastating experience. Coupled with the urgent need to find another job in a competitive market, it would be a scary experience for anyone.
All of these factors place many people in a precarious situation, and economic upheaval and uncertainty may make layoffs (or even just the possibility of layoffs) devastating. Dire circumstances such as these not only make layoffs more likely at many companies, but they increase pressure on everyone – which may lead to more intense feelings of guilt for those who emerge from a wave of layoffs unscathed.
How common is corporate survivors’ guilt?
A psychologist’s study on the impact of pandemic-era layoffs showed that approximately one-third of remaining employees felt guilty about keeping their jobs when several of their coworkers were laid off. Furthermore, these feelings of survivors’ guilt increased as time went on and the unemployment crisis deepened. Employees who remain on-staff may feel constantly fearful that their jobs will be the next to go, giving them long-term feelings of vulnerability that permeate their entire experience at the company and decrease their productivity and wellbeing.
It’s common to feel the effects of corporate survivors’ guilt throughout the company. One study that surveyed more than 4,100 people across more than 300 companies who remained employed after a corporate layoff found that 74% of workers who kept their jobs during layoffs say their productivity declined. That makes sense; it’s hard to focus when you’re worried that your job is on shaky ground or you’re racked with feelings of guilt and anxiety. Furthermore, 69% said the quality of the organization’s service or product declined since the laid-off employees were let go. This could be due to having fewer hands on deck or a redistribution of duties, as well as another result of decreased productivity.
Identifying corporate survivors’ guilt
After a time of turbulence and turmoil in the workplace, it’s important to keep a pulse on how employees are feeling and to let them know they’re supported. It’s a good idea to organize regular check-ins and seek out their feedback to get a sense of how everyone is feeling and to make it easier to identify any challenges. (We’ll discuss more tips for managing corporate survivors’ guilt in just a bit.) There are also some signs to look for in a workforce that could indicate that team members are experiencing corporate survivors’ guilt.
Symptoms of corporate survivors’ guilt
- Decreased productivity
- Lack of trust in management
- Less confidence in speaking up or making suggestions
- Increased instances of people calling in sick or not showing up to work
- More difficulty in making decisions or taking action
How to combat corporate survivors’ guilt
Read more: Employee Retention 101
It’s likely that a lot of time, energy and resources were dedicated to the layoff process. But it’s also important to have systems in place for managing and supporting the remaining employees. Cultivating a productive, engaged and happy workforce where all team members feel fulfilled and like their contributions matter should be a top priority of any organization. An environment where employees are sad, anxious and guilty isn’t healthy for anyone.
Fortunately, there are several ways to manage corporate survivors’ guilt and to help employees who are experiencing it. Having ongoing tools for addressing the deep-rooted issues is much more effective than one-time morale boosts.
What to do about corporate survivors’ guilt in the workforce
- Express gratitude for remaining employees.
- Organize regular check-ins with employees.
- Remind them that anything they are feeling is normal.
- Facilitate clear communication and be transparent.
- Be clear about roles and responsibilities.
- Ensure that employees have access to quality mental health services.
- Let them know how valuable their contributions are.
- Have compassion and patience before, during and after the layoff process.
If you’re dealing with corporate survivors’ guilt yourself, there are ways to make it a little easier.
Tips for dealing with corporate survivors’ guilt
- Rebuild your confidence.
- Get creative and find new ways of doing things.
- Take care of your physical health.
- Talk to trusted colleagues and mentors about how you’re feeling.
It’s normal for employees to go through a range of emotions after layoffs, and a common feeling may be one of guilt. Be patient throughout the process, and make sure all team members feel supported. Corporate survivors’ guilt isn’t a pleasant experience, but fortunately, it can be temporary, and there are ways to mitigate the negative effects and make the team stronger than ever.