Layoff Survior Guilt – What to Do About These 4 Common Reactions

What is Layoff Survivor Guilt?

Survivor guilt shows up when people who survived trauma are plagued by “an endless loop of counterfactual thoughts that you could have or should have done otherwise, though in fact, you did nothing wrong,” according to Nancy Sherman, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today.

Getting terminated from your job can be agonizing.  However, surviving a layoff can also create a sense of unrest. Is it ok to feel happy that you’re still working when your close colleagues are out of a job?  People dealing with layoff survivor guilt may be experiencing

  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • A lack of focus and/or motivation
  • Low energy
  • Feeling numb and/or disconnected
  • Feelings of helplessness

How Do Layoff Survivors Behave?

It’s common for layoff survivors to hold a grudge or resent their employer.  They may also let their productivity plummet and be disgruntled about taking on more work.  Finally, they may be assuming that more layoffs are coming.  Here’s what you can do to help your team move forward if you recognize these four common layoff survivor reactions.

1. Hold a grudge against the employer.

Those suffering from survivor guilt may feel bad – even though their job didn’t go away.  And they may feel as much or more resentment toward the employer as those whose jobs were terminated. 

How does this happen? Let’s say Jane is a dear older colleague.  She often helped you with your work, and you happen to know she has a tough home life, taking care of a disabled mother.  But one time you commented to the boss about one of Jane’s frustrating habits.  Or you pointed out some mistakes in her work. Later, when you learn she was part of the layoff, you feel a deep sense of remorse.  If only I had kept my mouth shut. . . 

This is a typical, human reaction.  However, if someone can’t shake the feeling of deep loss, regret or even responsibility for those affected by the layoff, she is suffering from layoff survivor guilt. 

Office connections run deep. When you interact with someone five days a week, you can’t help but bond, even a little. Employees are more likely to identify with fellow employees rather than their executive team. Don’t be surprised if even your most engaged and invested employees who survive a layoff are angry about what just went down. Maintaining an 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.

Some employees who survive a layoff will focus on self-preservation – meaning they want to update their résumé, refresh their LinkedIn profile, and start looking for a new position. Most of them will have no qualms doing that on company time in the aftermath of 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. 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 help 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

4. Assume more cuts are coming down the line.

Morale will take time to bounce back. If your organization regularly conducts layoffs, people may be bracing themselves for another cut.  

One of the best ways to move through the uncertainty faster is to focus on the known, and not dwell on the unknown.  When you feel lost, focus within your locus of control, instead of what’s outside your ability to control. Leaders should take time to simply listen to team members as they voice their concerns. It may be awkward, but it’s good to address the elephant in the room. “Yes, like most people, these cuts had an effect on my energy and morale. How are you doing?”  

In the midst of uncertainty, try to be that leader who identifies a rallying point.  A leader might say.  “All this change can lead to a lack of focus. But look at how much progress we’ve made on ‘X.’ Working on X still gives me a sense of accomplishment and is adding to my skillset. That keeps me going.”

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Want other tips to help the team move on and tame layoff survivor guilt? Our “Leading Company Recovery Checklist” can help. Get your copy here.

1What Everybody Should Know About Survivors Guilt, Psychology Today

2Workplace Survivor Syndrome, BJC EAP

3Best Practices for Laying Off Employees, inc.com

4Survivor Syndrome: Key Considerations and Practical Steps, Helen Wolfe, IES