How to Manage Layoff Survivor Sickness

July 16, 2018 by Josh Hrala

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A layoff or RIF can bring on stress for everyone in an organization – not just those being let go. Managers are stressed because they have to pull teams together with less people. HR leaders are stressed about conducting the event, and upper management worries that the move may come back to haunt them.

But one of the most stressful groups to be in is the ‘surviving’ group,’ those who were not let go from the layoff or RIF.

Employees who were not let going during the event can feel guilty, stressed out, and generally off for quite some time after the event happens. This is called ‘layoff survivor sickness,’ and it can be quite hard to deal with.

The good news is that with proper techniques, HR leaders can foster a relationship with their staff members that allows them to voice these feelings and create a plan to get back in the game. Please note, though, that this article will be focused on speaking to actual layoff survivors and not HR leaders.

If you are an HR leader, taking this advice and putting it into play at your organization can help you ease tensions across the board.

Young student writing in a library

Let’s explore some of the options. As you will see, many of these techniques are known to reduce stress levels no matter what traumatic event took place.

The First Step: Learn How to Remain Calm, Cool, and Collected

During any stressful event, it’s always good to keep a few relaxation techniques in your back pocket.

Many of these techniques can be done wherever you are and can help immediately reduce your anxious feelings if done properly.

There are numerous techniques but one of the best is to focus on your breath. You can learn more about these immediate stress coping strategies here. We are not psychologists, nor do we claim to be, but these techniques are often cited by scientists to decrease anxiety. So, if you’re feeling the weight, explore what might work for you.

horizontal detail of women doing yoga outdoors at sunset with lens flare. Defocused

If you’re an HR leader, knowing these techniques can help calm a worker when they come and meet with you about their feelings, too.

Next, survivors should take a look at what is causing them stress and rationalize solutions to it.

Pinpoint Stressors and Come Up With Solutions

According to Monster, one of the best ways to get over survivor sickness is to examine what about a layoff stresses you out. This likely involves going through a mental exercise to examine what you would do if you were the one being let go.

“That’s what Lisa Jo Lampi, a media analyst for an advertising agency in the Twin Cities, did when the first of three rounds of layoffs hit her company. Lampi and her husband discussed how they could cut their household budget and where they could find alternate health insurance,” Megan Malugani reports for Monster.

“She also evaluated her skills and investigated other jobs — both in and out of her field – for which she’d be qualified.”

This will help layoff survivors rationalize their fears and also stave them off by having a proper plan on paper. If you are prepared, you can handle anything.

Another tip from Monster is to recognize that survivor guilt is a real thing.

Step Two: Don’t Beat Yourself Up

When it comes to these anxious feelings, some people might think that they are ‘just being crazy,’ but there is nothing crazy about it. Anxiety, fear, guilt, depression; these are all things that a layoff can trigger in survivors, and it’s 100 percent normal.

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“The terms psychologists toss around to describe these feelings include survivor’s guilt (why him and not me?), survivor’s envy (thinking you might be better off gone too) and emotional contagion (the tendency to pick up your laid-off colleagues’ feelings of gloom and desperation),” reports Barbara Kiviat for Time Magazine.

“These feelings are with us in every recession, but as layoffs spread to more industries, people in all walks of life are increasingly experiencing them.”

Kiviat goes on to say that repercussions of these feelings can go on for more than a year after the layoff or RIF event occurs. That’s a long time!

It’s vital that survivors understand that they are not alone with these feelings, and it is the norm to feel them after something like this. Recognizing this fact that make it easier to cope in the long run.

Step Three: Communication, Communication, Communication

As if the title of this section didn’t say it enough, you need to communicate!

But with who? Well, really anyone, but here are some ideas that might help negate layoff feelings.

According to Dartmouth College, who did a great write up on layoff survivor sickness, talking to your coworkers who were let go is a great place to start.

For example, you can help them with their job hunt by reaching out to your connections and making an introduction for them. You can help them plan their budget and give them a great support system to get through their trying time.

Here’s what Dartmouth said of the matter:

“These are your friends and they are experiencing serious issues with self‐worth and loss, too. So many people tie up so much of their identity and self esteem in what they do for a living that a layoff is a major blow to their sense of themselves, their competence and self worth. You do them a kindness, and you will feel better, too, if you continue your weekly lunch date with your laid off coworker. Let your laid off former coworker vent and listen to see how you can lend support. Sometimes, active listening is all they need.”

Besides helping your friends and coworkers who were impacted by the business decision, you should speak to your manager about your feelings, too, because they are likely feeling the same way – if they survived the layoff themselves.

“But, remember that the middle managers who would generally communicate are also experiencing loss and concern about their own jobs. (Often managers are the first to be laid off.),” Dartmouth continues.

“If you are not receiving the communication you need from your manager, seek it out by asking questions and spending time with him or her. Go after what you need; don’t wait for communication to flow downwards.”

Head of department standing and talking to smiling young employees in office

Anyway you cut it, communication is important. Not only will it help you talk about your feelings, it will hit at the second step, too, which is to understand that you are not alone with these guilty, stressful thoughts.

Step Four: Look Elsewhere For a Self Esteem Boost

Like Time mentioned, many workers connect their self-esteem and self-worth with their jobs. This is likely because we all spend so much time working every week. It’s the main thing we do, after all.

However, during a layoff, your self-esteem may plummet because you realize that that source is more fragile that you thought. Many HR leaders say that the best way to fix this issue is by looking for self-esteem boosters outside of the office or workplace.

For example, you could dedicate some time to charity work, work on personal projects, write a journal or blog, or pick up a new hobby. Really, the goal is to look for activities that are not work-related that you love to do and engage with them.

By doing so, you’ll not only help yourself cure your layoff survivor sickness, but you will also be a more well-rounded person in the long run.

You can also take more pride in the actual work you do, not the place you do it in.

“You’ll bounce back from layoff survivor sickness quicker if you find self-esteem in the type of work you do rather than where you do it,” reports Malugani.

“Noer calls this ‘breaking organizational codependence,’ and it means that you should find a sense of value and purpose in your profession rather than in your company. ‘Place your self-esteem in your own hands and not your organization’s hand,’” continues Malugani, who spoke with consultant David Noer, an expert on layoff survivor sickness.

Coping With Layoff Survivor Sickness: Conclusion

When it comes to managing layoff survivor sickness, everyone is different. The tips that are offered here in this article can get you well on your way to feeling better, but don’t be afraid to customize them.

The main takeaway here is to understand that layoff guilt is completely normal.

Man and woman meeting over coffee in restaurant-1

Everyone at your organization is probably feeling something from the layoff. You are not alone.

To help move on from these feelings, find ways to cope with stress inside and outside of work by utilizing breathing techniques and other healthy stress relievers.

Also, remember that one of the key coping mechanisms is communication. By communicating with your loved ones, your friends, you coworkers, managers, and those who were impacted by the layoff, you can all help each other.

While doing this, look for ways to take pride in your profession while understanding that you don’t need to have so much pride tied up with where you work.

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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