Workplaces across the country have seen massive changes over the past two years: Pandemic-related layoffs and downsizings, an unprecedented number of workers leaving the workforce for safety reasons and caregiving responsibilities, and a change in the labor market that’s driven a huge number of workers to switch jobs and even careers. No matter the reason, many firms have found themselves operating with a fraction of the staff they previously employed. For remaining employees, being the ones left standing can come with a complicated mix of grief, anxiety, guilt, and anger. And for some, it can be a truly destabilizing, distressing experience — and one that can have significant negative impacts on their well-being.
Known as “workplace survivor syndrome,” it’s a condition experts say can destroy staff morale and productivity, and can seriously impact your employees’ sense of psychological safety at work. But while it can be a common occurrence, there are steps Human Resources professionals can take to help their teams navigate the types of changes that can lead to workplace survivor syndrome. Here’s what experts recommend.
What Is Workplace Survivor Syndrome?
Survivor syndrome, or survivor’s guilt, is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) where individuals who have survived a traumatic experience (such as a natural disaster, violent attack, or serious accident) suffer guilt about having made it through when others didn’t. Similarly, experts said, workplace survivor syndrome is a reaction in employees who remain part of an organization after layoffs, restructurings, job cuts, or resignations have eliminated longtime coworkers.
According to Sally Spencer-Thomas, PsyD, a Colorado-based clinical psychologist and TEDx speaker who specializes in mental health advocacy and suicide prevention in organizations, workplace survivor syndrome can be driven by a “mixture of grief from losing colleagues, anxiety regarding their [own] job security, overwhelm from needing to pick up more work, and distress from deteriorating psychological safety.” And the effects can be immediate, she said.
“While many think the ‘layoff survivors’ should feel grateful [to still have a job], they often show signs of consequences of working in a poor psychological safety climate — decreased productivity, lack of trust in leadership, poor morale, and more,” Spencer-Thomas continued. “Many also experience survivor guilt, wondering why they were spared when other worthy workers were not.”
Workplace survivor syndrome can manifest in a number of ways: increased absenteeism, anxiety at work, feelings of guilt, depression, poor morale, indecision, disengagement, and overwhelm and burnout. And these effects can be felt far longer than the restructuring or downsizing period itself.
How to Take Action
For companies that know a staff reduction or layoff is coming, the way Human Resources and management handle the process can significantly help mitigate the fallout. Working to keep the psychological safety of not just the departing employees, but their former colleagues, too, top of mind is paramount, experts said.
“Instead of waiting until [workplace survivor syndrome or similar] problems emerge, assume they are on their way and be proactive,” advised Spencer-Thomas. “Anticipate and acknowledge all of the challenging emotions and offer significant support throughout the transition.”
What does this look like in practice? And what can firms do if layoffs have already happened? Experts said that while every company’s situation will be unique, there are several best practices that can help address or reduce stress and anxiety. Here’s what they are.
If restructurings are on the horizon, Spencer-Thomas said that HR and management should spend time planning how they’ll take action, and how those plans will be communicated. Being upfront about what’s happening — and what isn’t — is critical.
“Provide crisis communication that helps prevent gossip from eroding psychological safety,” Spencer-Thomas advised. The ultimate message, she said, should be simple: “This is what we know. This is what we don't know. This is what to expect moving forward."
Matthew Carter, an attorney at business formation site Inc and Go, agreed — keeping all communication about staff changes clear and compassionate is the crucial first step.
“Be honest, kind, and firm,” he said. “Keep in mind that when you do the layoff, you won’t just be talking to the person losing their job; you're talking to everyone else they'll tell the story to later.”
2. Bring in Support
Whether the staff redundancies are happening in the future or are a legacy continuing to affect the workplace, tap into outside resources to provide the employees who remain at your organization with the support they need to work through their feelings, recommended Spencer-Thomas.
“Enroll qualified support from the EAP [Employee Assistance Program] for facilitated forums that validate experiences of frustration, grief, and guilt,” she advised. “Giving people a chance to talk about this in a safe space often helps diffuse the intensity of the emotions.”
3. Slow Down
While layoffs and staff reductions can come with implicit pressure to function as normally as possible — or even a sense of pressure to produce more to make up for the reduced headcount — Spencer-Thomas said that pushing remaining employees to pretend everything is business-as-usual isn’t realistic, or compassionate. Nor is it wise, if preserving the relationships and productivity of your remaining staff is important.
“Give workers grace in adjusting to the changes,” she said. “Offer wellness breaks and lower expectations of productivity during the transition.”
By being upfront and clear, acknowledging the pain and trepidation of organizational upheaval, and providing support to the employees who remain after the layoffs or restructuring, employers can help mitigate workplace survivor syndrome by taking some of the stressful unknowns and anxiety out of the downsizing process, experts said.
It can be a delicate balance: Addressing workplace survivor syndrome isn’t about looking for silver linings, or trying to convince a smaller staff that all change is good or that they’re lucky to be there. Rather, Spencer-Thomas said, it can be about helping employees process the changes. Facing workplace survivor syndrome head on, she said, can “empower managers to help workers reframe the adversity of the transition to new opportunities for growth and resilience.”