Survivor’s guilt: supporting staff who have avoided redundancy

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With mass redundancies expected over the coming months, it’s easy to focus on supporting those losing their jobs. But ‘survivors’ also need reassuring that their job is safe and the process was conducted fairly. Jamie Mackenzie offers some tips for HR.

With recent Barclaycard research finding that 82% of UK SMEs have been negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, employers will inevitably have some tough decisions to make.

Whether they’ve been hit particularly badly by the crisis or had to take on extra staff to cope with demand for key services, at some point many employers will have to consider redundancies. In fact, CIPD research found that one in five organisations believe they will have to cut jobs this summer as a result of Covid-19.

Making decisions that impact people is never easy. But, sadly, planning for redundancies also means that employers need to plan for any ‘survivor’s guilt’ it could trigger in their remaining workforce.

What is survivor’s guilt?

In an employment context, survivor’s guilt refers to the emotional, psychological and physical effects of employees who are not laid off during a company restructuring. Feelings after a company downsizes can range from guilt and anger to anxiety, unhappiness and even concerns that they might be next. After a round of layoffs, surviving employees can be left questioning, “why did I make it, but they didn’t?” or “how am I going to face my friend knowing they’re unemployed?”.

Take supermarket workers for example – many stores took on extra delivery drivers and workers to cope with the increased demand during lockdown. For some employees it will mean saying goodbye to colleagues who volunteered to work on the frontline and making them redundant could feel more like a stab in the back rather than the thanks they deserve.

It’s hard to prevent employees from feeling the destabilising impact of company redundancies and suffering from survivor’s guilt. It will be a shock to the system as employees say goodbye to colleagues, work with new ones, and adjust to a new workload.

These emotions can have a huge impact on the organisation. Despite often being the best performers in an organisation, and the ones a company is desperate to retain, survivors’ productivity often drops. A study of one Fortune 500 tech firm discovered that after the company cut its staff by 15% the number of new inventions produced fell 24%.

So while a business is planning its redundancy strategy, it must also think about the impact on remaining staff too. It’s easy to assume that it’s surviving workforce will work harder, due to the simple gratitude of not being let go. But they also need to mitigate those feelings of guilt.

Remaining employees will want to be reassured that the redundancies were necessary, carried out fairly, and that people were treated respectfully.”

Suss out the symptoms

When the dust settles, don’t assume that your employees will be able to hop to it and be completely engaged in their work. Leaders and managers need to watch out for signs of survivor’s guilt as the days and weeks pass. Symptoms can include having difficulty sleeping, feeling irritable and unmotivated, as well as physical symptoms like headaches and stomach aches. Employees who are suffering from this could start feeling disgruntled and distrusting of the company and its leadership. It’s also worth remembering that they may be assuming more cuts are on their way, which would likely have an impact on their motivation.

Managers need to be ready to deal with employees displaying these kinds of behaviours, which will puncture morale and send productivity plummeting if not handled in the right way. Companies should devote time to training managers so they fully understand these challenges and can help support employees.

Talk about it

Remaining employees will want to be reassured that the redundancies were necessary, carried out fairly, and that people were treated respectfully. Building trust means communicating with staff of all levels to help mitigate some of the feelings of uncertainty. This has been essential in dealing with the pandemic, and will continue to be vital as businesses navigate the months ahead.

Be honest with staff, clearly articulate why this is happening and outline how the redundancies will take place. Make sure remaining staff have the time and space to process their emotions. Keeping their frustrations bottled up will only make the survivor’s guilt worse. In practical terms, this means arranging regular one-to-one catch-ups between employees and their managers and providing space for employees to open up. Moving forward, regular communication from leaders allows them to address any negative rumours circulating and be transparent on performance.

Survivor’s guilt is a serious issue that can hamper an organisation’s recovery. As the UK moves away from lockdown and takes its tentative steps towards normality, businesses need to be prepared for the impact of layoffs on their retained staff and be ready to support them during this challenging time.

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Jamie Mackenzie

About Jamie Mackenzie

Jamie Mackenzie is director of marketing at Sodexo Engage.
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