Just weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment claims soared past 30 million. Understandably, the focus is on those who are now jobless, whose job prospects and long-term security are suddenly unclear. What’s often overlooked in the economic reckoning, though, are the employees whose jobs were spared.
While some may feel lucky to still be employed, others may experience mixed feelings. They may be relieved to still have a job but simultaneously guilt-ridden about the suffering of former colleagues who were let go. This type of “survivor guilt” is normally associated with the emotions people experience after facing a traumatic event or accident that look the lives of others, but it can also happen after corporate layoffs. It’s not uncommon for the employees left standing to wonder, Why did I make it, but they didn’t? or How am I going to face my friends who were released knowing that they’re in a tenuous financial situation while I’m still employed? Survivor guilt may be exacerbated by a perception that the company failed to recognize or reward trusted colleagues and friends and instead eliminated them.
Studies show that nearly three-quarters (74%) of employees retained after a layoff saw their productivity decline after it, while 69% said that the quality of their company’s product or service deteriorated. When these respondents were asked why they felt that way, they expressed feelings of guilt, anxiety, and anger. The good news is that workers who felt that their managers were visible, approachable, and open were more than 70% less likely to report a productivity drop, and 65% less likely to report a decline in the quality of their organization’s offerings. These numbers show that leaders can make a big difference in helping retained employees deal with their survivor guilt. Here’s how.
Remember that work and life are interconnected
“Coworkers can become some of our closest friends, making work a trigger for pain,” says Jennifer Moss, author of Unlocking Happiness at Work. Losing a coworker to a layoff evokes feelings of grief, explains Moss. “Grief doesn’t just come with sadness and loss. Grief can also come fully-loaded with guilt, anger, uncertainty, denial, regret, and so much more.” If during the next staff video call, employees notice that previous team members are now absent, they may be distracted from the business at hand, thinking about why their others were laid off. So, the first thing to do is acknowledge what these “survivors” are feeling, while honoring the contributions made by their former colleagues. Encourage employees to reach out to former coworkers and ensure that, as a manager, you do as well, offering tangible emotional and job-search support, such as reviewing resumes, making networking introductions, and providing references.
To help employees avoid becoming mired in — and distracted by — survivor guilt, managers should help them see the reasons for the company’s downsizing decisions and explain the other options that were considered. If the company is helping to ease the transition for those whose jobs were eliminated, by providing severance and career-transition services, for example, share those details, too. If some workers were furloughed rather than laid off and there are plans to hire them back when economic conditions improve, clarify that, as well. When employees understand that management is reshaping the company for future stability and growth while treating people with dignity and keeping opportunities open when possible, they will be more likely to respond with their best efforts.
Communicate consistently and transparently
While you may be tempted to avoid these difficult topics, doing so can further erode trust in management and the company. Frequent, open communication is critical to reassuring employees in a crisis and can be helpful in mitigating survivor guilt. Leaders at every level of the organization must engage with their their people systematically and often. Companies should consider devoting a day or two to training and discussion sessions to help managers build their confidence in delivering empathetic and consistent messaging around layoffs. Virtual town-hall meetings, brown-bag lunches, and other open forums are useful ways to keep the dialogue open and give employees a chance to ask questions. Team leaders can start by adding 15 minutes at the end of their next few staff meetings to facilitate two-way communication and provide a safe space for employees to process their emotions about colleagues being let go. Make the effort to be approachable, visible, and candid. Address employees’ survivor guilt rather than ignoring it.
Connect work to purpose
Another strategy for helping your remaining employees shift their focus from guilt back to their jobs is to reorient them toward individual and group purpose. People find meaning when they see a clear connection between what they value and what they spend time doing. That link is not always obvious even in the best of times and is particularly tenuous during a global pandemic when those who are not on the front lines may feel that their work is less significant.
Once employees have had a chance to process their feelings about the layoffs and gain a better understanding of the decisions made, managers are in a great position to articulate the organization’s purpose and values and connect everyone’s work to them. The most effective way to do this is to share stories of how, collectively, you are making a positive difference in the lives of real people, including customers, employees, and communities. You can also remind your employees that they do their work in service of those they care about in their personal lives.
Amid layoffs related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s imperative to recognize the feelings and accommodate the needs of employees still in the workforce who are dealing not only with seeing colleagues lose their jobs but also, possibly, with personal challenges that are often invisible, undefined, and complicated. Leaders must show that they care by communicating transparently about the situation and listening while people process survivor guilt. They must also be willing to adapt and readjust to prioritize people over profits.