It is well recognised that work plays an important role in providing employees with a structure as well as a sense of purpose and of belonging – not just to individuals, but to teams and organisations as a whole. It offers individuals an outlet for creativity and responsibility, which in turn enhances emotional wellbeing and overall happiness.
Unfortunately, when redundancies occur all this can be undermined. HR departments are often requested to lead this work, but while there are many “how to” guides to make redundancies compliant with legislation, there appears to be a lack of practical guidance on how these processes can be managed from an emotional point of view or in terms of limiting the impact on the mental health of employees.
It is worth noting that, broadly speaking, redundancy rounds will affect two main groups: those employees who have been made redundant; and those who “survive”, together with their employers. This article aims to offer HR managers advice on how the “survivors” can be best supported throughout the redundancy process and, critically, on how to keep the impact of this on a workforce and its morale to a minimum.
Most HR departments will have a written policy in place clearly setting out how the process of redundancy should be carried out and how it should be structured. This in itself will go far to reduce some of the inevitable anxieties involved – especially for the employer – and in setting the precedent for subsequent stages of the procedure.
Providing clear and consistent communications throughout the redundancy process helps everyone involved to better handle the situation, both emotionally and psychologically. This is the key to ensuring the impact is as limited as possible.
1. Have a clear communication plan
As many will have experienced firsthand, those hearing about redundancies for the first time often talk about receiving “unclear” or “contradictory” information that significantly increases their own experience of stress.
In addition, a clearly communicated explanation and plan of how the downsizing will secure the long-term future of the organisation will help employees to understand that there is a strategic aim for the changes, rather than it being a “knee-jerk” reaction. Within this plan, a clear and open process needs to explain how people will be chosen to stay or go, and clear timescales must be established. Clarity and communication following strict timescales will help reduce overall anxiety and uncertainty.
2. Continue communicating after downsizing
Communication is vital even after the downsizing has been completed, as the re-structuring exercise in terms of peoples’ jobs and responsibilities will be ongoing. It is helpful to have metrics from surveys and focus groups that track employee opinion so that shifts in scores can be investigated, and an “early warning” mechanism can highlight when communications are not aligned with staff.
3. Allow for an emotional response
Managers and supervisors should be prepared for an emotional response from employees who are made redundant and from the “survivors” who remain. First, is important for managers to feel that these are not personal attacks. Second, managers should receive training to help them understand what appropriate non-verbal behaviour/body language they should use to ensure they appear open and non-defensive.
Small details can make a big difference to how everyone feels during the redundancy process. For example, if a manager feels tense before addressing an employee, they should be encouraged to use breathing techniques to relax their body. Another tip is to set out a meeting room appropriately so that it is formal, but with minimal barriers.
To help senior members of staff remain calm throughout the redundancy process, it can be useful to offer them the opportunity to debrief following highly emotional meetings, making them feel supported.
4. Consider using counselling services
While those leaving the organisation are often offered outplacement services, which can include coaching or counselling support, those employees not being made redundant should also be provided with support.
“Survivors” can often suffer from feelings of guilt normally experienced by those who survive major disasters or traumas, inducing questions such as: “Why not me?” These people find it difficult to move forwards from the event from a psychological point of view, meaning they feel “stuck”.
Managers can ensure that employees are fully supported by making them aware of the company employee assistance programme or counselling service. Taking the time to explain what the service covers and why it is being provided, perhaps by referring to a leaflet, will help instil confidence – especially in relation to the confidential nature of the service.
5. Involve “survivors”
Managers need to be highly visible to their staff. Being as approachable and as honest as possible about the future will help to rebuild trust and start to rebuild a positive psychological contract with employees.
Continuing to involve employees with the business in building the future success of the organisation is vital by asking them how the organisation’s work can be carried out with fewer staff. Asking them what non-value-adding tasks they think should be stopped, for example, is a good first step.
In short, providing clear communications throughout the implementation of any redundancy scheme is of utmost importance. Allowing employees to psychologically prepare for what is to come by giving them some warning in advance; assuring them that communications will be ongoing throughout the process – be it good news or bad; and taking care to reassure “survivors” of their value to the company once redundancies have been carried out will go far to help limit impact of these in both the short and long term.
Andrew Kinder is a member of the Executive Committee of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy’s workplace division. He also is chief psychologist at a major UK employee assistance programme.
XpertHR provides a good practice guide on managing supporting redundancy survivors, and a survey of employers on managing the survivor syndrome during and after redundancies.