Leadership Tips  

Survivor Syndrome

Survivor Syndrome

Guilt. Anger. Anxiety. These are common emotions experienced by employees who survive a layoff and are experiencing survivor syndrome. I’ve been there five times in my career – one of the lucky ones who got to keep her job, but who was swept up in a wave of heavy emotions in the aftermath.

Workplace Survivor Syndrome: Term coined by organizational psychologists to describe the emotional, psychological, and physical effects of employees who remain in the midst of company downsizing.1

As an Inc. article shares, there are inevitable downfalls of a downsizing – “weakened business relationships, reduced trust among remaining employees, and increased turnover of important talent who get concerned about the company’s health.”2

Although these might be inevitable, there are ways to address them head on and minimize the long-term effect they have on your teams and your business. This makes caring for your survivors essential.

When you recognize these 4 common reactions, you can help others process and move forward.

1. Hold a grudge against the company.
Office connections run deep. When you interact with someone five days a week, you can’t help but bond, even if you never become the closest of friends. Helping a coworker pack up his desk while fighting back tears – just to be asked by another dear coworker for help packing her things so she can leave as quickly as possible – is heartbreaking.

In that moment, business doesn’t matter. The bottom line is the enemy. Company loyalty is a laughable concept. You’re in pain and your former colleagues are devastated and that’s all you think about.

Don’t be surprised if even your most engaged and invested employees are angry about what just went down. Just like any other relationship, it takes a lot of time to work through the hurt. Maintaining open conversation with them is key.

2. Let productivity plummet.
Traumatic events linger in your mind. You find yourself thinking through what happened over and over again. You turn to others to help you make sense of it. Naturally, this means you turn to your fellow survivors. Productivity goes out the window when you’re trying to comfort each other.

Surviving employees also have the urge for self-preservation – meaning they want to update their résumé, refresh their LinkedIn profile, and start looking for a position at a stable and kind company. (Remember that whole grudge thing I told you about?) Most of them will have no qualms doing that on company time in the aftermath of a restructuring or downsizing. But this will lessen over time. Especially if you commit to being a sounding board and confidant for your team members.

3. Assume more cuts are coming down the line.
Morale will take time to bounce back. Months after a large layoff at a law firm I worked at in a previous life, I was sitting in my exit interview and the HR Manager asked if we could speak candidly off the record. “How’s morale on the second floor?” she questioned. I shared that people were still bracing themselves for another cut. We had gone through two in one year. Things didn’t feel stable. People were still whispering behind closed doors.

Depending on your team and your organization, you may move through the uncertainty faster than we did back then. Taking time to address the issue with each individual and team would have certainly helped us build back trust. But no one at the firm found it necessary to do that. Do the right thing, even if it’s awkward, and address the elephant in the room early on and as often as needed.

4. Be disgruntled about taking on more work.
Most employees feel they work at full capacity on any given week. During the weeks after a layoff? They’ll likely feel panicked by the thought of taking on the workload of a separated employee – or even two.

Expect some resistance at first. Negative thoughts may be, “Just wait until they see how long it will take to finish all these new projects without half our team.” Or, “There is no way we can serve this account with the number of staff left.” To survive a layoff bear the burden with your team. Show you are in the trenches with them.

Your separated employees deserve job search assistance to help them move forward after a layoff. And your surviving employees need special time and attention as well. As a study on survivor syndrome points out, “your organizational change will bear fruit if those who remain feel valued, involved, trusted, and empowered to do their best.”3

Download our Leading Company Recovery Checklist. 

Discover ways to address these common reactions and ensure that your valued and trusted team members begin to thrive again.

1 Workplace Survivor Syndrome, BJC EAP
2 Best Practices for How to Layoff Employees, inc.com
3 Survivor Syndrome: Key Considerations and Practical Steps, Helen Wolfe, IES


Contribution by Ashlee Ayers.

Ashlee is an IMPACT Group Marketing Content Manager who oversees content planning, develops marketing collateral, and shares IMPACT Group’s story each day. Connect with Ashlee on LinkedIn today.

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