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Downsizing? Managers Will Also Need To Navigate 'Survivor Syndrome'

Job insecurity, depression and anxiety, doubt and distrust of leadership, a lack of motivation, a lack of commitment and a lack of job satisfaction. Those are the feelings not just of the people who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, but the ones who haven't.

In the UK, a little over half of the estimated 9.5 million workers who were on furlough have now returned to their jobs, but one in eight workers across the country are still waiting.

In the U.S., millions of workers remain furloughed and are unsure when they will be called back to work — or whether they will be called back at all. The number of unemployed Americans is, by some estimates, as high as 21 million people, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting that in July, 9.2 million Americans were still temporarily unemployed. This wave hit the real estate industry hard, with companies across all sectors forced to furlough workers or permanently let them go.  

The employees who still have their jobs after their company downsizes may seem like the lucky ones, but it isn’t that simple: It’s common for workers who keep their jobs while seeing their co-workers get cut to be plagued by the psychological turmoil described above. Organizational psychologists have a term for this: workplace survivor syndrome.

According to the Harvard Business Review, nearly three-quarters of "survivor" employees experienced a productivity nosedive, and 69% harbored sentiments of negativity, doubt and dissatisfaction toward their jobs or employers. 

"Layoff survivors’ guilt is very real and very common, even in a strong economy when the likelihood of former colleagues finding other positions is strong," Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Senior Vice President Andrew Challenger said in a recent statement. "However, now the additional stress of working and living through a pandemic can make survivors’ guilt even more acute. The departure of colleagues, whether through an individual or mass layoff, tends to come with decreased morale for those who remain."

Be transparent and communicative.

"Leaders at every level of the organization must engage with their people systematically and often,” Susan Peppercorn, an executive career transition coach, wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

"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."

A communication plan for leadership should offer guidance on how to address layoffs to their remaining teams. Workers experiencing survivor syndrome are likely to be anxious about the possibility of more layoffs in the future: Face these anxieties openly and transparently while assuring employees that they are valued. 

Be proactive.

"If you do not recognize that survivors are dealing with a lot of emotions, the result can be a company that motivates workers by fear instead of loyalty," Challenger said. "This can lead to disengaged workers who will jump ship as soon as the economy improves and opportunities present themselves. At that point, employers could be left scrambling to fill the positions of the most competent employees to keep their businesses afloat." 

He also recommends monitoring morale with engagement surveys.

Adjust the resulting extra workload fairly and evenly.

"Remaining workers not only may feel sorry for their former co-workers, they also must build new relationships and redistribute work, which creates additional stress," Challenger said, recommending that employers offer positive reinforcement and acknowledge good work — including the good work of those who were laid off. 

"During a layoff that is strictly for business reasons and not the fault of those who were let go, acknowledge that those workers were essential and helped the company grow," Challenger wrote in its recent report. "Be vocal in appreciating the contributions of those who remain."

Inspire your team with a sense of purpose.

Peppercorn recommends that companies strive to reorient downsizing survivors toward an individual and group sense of purpose.

"People find meaning when they see a clear connection between what they value and what they spend time doing," she said. "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."

She added that sharing positive stories about the collective impact employees make for their clients, customers, employees or communities is another way to sow inspiration.

"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," she said. "Leaders must show that they care by communicating transparently about the situation and listening while people process survivor guilt."