The Way to Work


The Way to Keep Working: Dealing with Post-Layoff Survival Guilt

March 18, 2009
by Rachel Balik
You’re immensely relieved that you survived the layoffs. Or at least, you should be. But after coworkers are let go, many who remain on staff experience feelings of guilt and anxiety. Hard as times are, there are ways that management and employees alike can keep a positive outlook and maintain a productive workflow.

Why (Not) Me?

Psychologists say that people who don’t get fired may be initially relieved to still have a job, but feelings of happiness can soon fade into remorse and discontent at the office. There are three factors at work. The first is survivor’s guilt: you wonder why your coworkers were laid off instead of you. Time magazine says the other two are “survivor’s envy” and “emotional contagion.” The first refers to wishing that you were the one who was let go and the second is the tendency to absorb the negative feelings of your fired coworkers, even though you still have a job.

Another part of the problem seems analogous to a situation in which parents focus all their attention on a “problem child” and ignore the well-behaved sibling. While employers work hard to provide severance packages and consolation to laid-off employees, they offer little or no support to those left behind.  In fact, remaining employees may need more help than expected, psychologist Hap LeCrone wrote in a March 2008 advice column for the Waco Tribune-Herald.
Layoff survivors experience sadness akin to what people feel after a death or divorce, LeCrone explained. They become so fixated on the experiences of their coworkers, they can’t be happy about keeping their jobs. They often have fears and confusion about the future. But the surviving office staff often receive little or no sympathy, and they generally feel awkward about mentioning their unhappiness.

Those left behind are usually dealing with an increased workload, and the atmosphere of tension and uncertainty that hangs after layoffs can make accomplishing that work seem more difficult and intensely stressful. Some employees in that kind of environment actually become physically ill, the Coloradoan reports. Others start to feel less passionate or proud of the work they are doing.

The article goes on to say that the notion that employees will be grateful and work harder after mass layoffs is a myth. In most cases, there will be a dip in productivity if managers don’t make an effort to combat the sour taste left behind after layoffs.

Survival of the Fittest

If managers are sensitive to the needs and feelings of the remaining staff, business can go on productively, even if things are inevitably a bit somber for a while. While it may seem counterintuitive to nurture the people who were lucky enough to keep their jobs, it’s absolutely essential; otherwise, excessive absences, lack of motivation and decline in quality of work may follow.

Managers should do what they can to ease employees’ workloads. This is a good time to get rid of extraneous meetings and shut down projects that aren’t directly related to meeting goals. When employees are feeling the crunch of an increased workload, the last thing they need is to be bogged down with superfluous tasks. Tasks which aren’t eliminated may need to be reallocated to others.

Layoffs are bound to make the remaining employees confused and fearful about their own future at the company, so transparency and teamwork are key. And that includes being upfront about the treatment of those that were laid off, BusinessWeek emphasizes. Be fair to and supportive of staff members who go cut, and then let remaining employees know their friends are cared for, thus reducing guilt.

It is essential to give employees time to ask questions or talk about concerns. Informal “town hall” meetings can help foster bonds between company members, and allow managers to monitor stress and unrest in the office. Many employees feel that even if they survived this round of layoffs, there’s no hope for the future. Business coach Tanya Goodwin-Maslach advises that if managers avoid treating the situation as a “downer” and focus on caring for employees, the overall climate will grow more positive and everyone will be ready to pull together and resume their normal work.

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