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How to Manage Layoff Survivor Guilt

March 06, 2024 by Cynthia Orduña

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Offboarding, particularly in the case of a layoff, is universally disliked. It’s a time fraught with tension, high emotions, and a palpable sense of unease. Those who are being let go, whether individuals or entire teams, are understandably anxious about their future prospects. They may harbor feelings of resentment or frustration towards the company, while they face the daunting task of seeking new employment.

Meanwhile, the surviving employees are not immune to the psychological effects of layoffs. They too are plagued by uncertainty and a flurry of layoff survivor questions:

  • Will they be the next ones to go?
  • Can they trust in the security of their positions?
  • What will become of their former colleagues and friends who are now without a job?

These concerns are entirely natural given the circumstances of such a pivotal event. With the focus often being on resources to help laid-off employees, one crucial topic is rarely discussed: layoff survivor guilt.

In this article, we’ll cover the concept of layoff survivor guilt and provide strategies for how to manage layoff survivors to prevent it from occurring within your organization.

What Is Layoff Survivor Guilt?

Layoff survivor guilt refers to the emotional distress experienced by individuals who remain employed within an organization after witnessing their colleagues being laid off or terminated. It stems from a combination of relief at retaining one’s job, empathy for those who lost their jobs, and a sense of unfairness or survivor’s remorse.

This workplace survivor syndrome–as it’s also commonly known–often arises due to various factors. Here are the psychological effects of layoffs that surviving employees often experience:

Empathy and Solidarity

Employees who survive layoffs may feel empathy and solidarity with their former colleagues who lost their jobs. They may empathize with their colleagues’ financial struggles, emotional distress, and uncertainty about the future, leading to feelings of guilt for being spared from the same fate.

Sense of Unfairness

Surviving employees may perceive the layoff process as arbitrary or unjust, leading to feelings of guilt or undeserved privilege. They may question why they were retained while others were let go, causing internal conflict and moral distress.

Increased Workload and Stress

In the aftermath of layoffs, surviving employees often face increased workloads, responsibilities, and pressure to perform. Due to this often happening without a pay increase or higher job title, this leads to heightened stress and burnout.

Fear of Future Layoffs

Surviving employees may live in constant fear of future layoffs, worrying about their own job security and the stability of the organization. This fear can exacerbate feelings of guilt and anxiety, as employees struggle to reconcile their gratitude for still having a job with the uncertainty of the future.

Identity and Self-Worth

Work often plays a significant role in shaping individuals’ identities and self-worth. Surviving employees may grapple with feelings of inadequacy, imposter syndrome, or a diminished sense of self-worth, particularly if they perceive their value as being tied to their employment status.

Common Layoff Survivor Questions

Here are some common questions that individuals experiencing layoff survivor guilt might ask themselves:

  • Why did I survive the layoff when others didn’t?
  • Should I feel guilty for keeping my job while my colleagues were let go?
  • How can I cope with the guilt and sadness of seeing my coworkers lose their jobs?
  • Will I be next in line for a layoff?
  • What can I do to support my former colleagues who were laid off?
  • How can I manage the increased workload and responsibilities now that the workforce has been reduced?
  • Is it normal to feel relieved about keeping my job while also feeling guilty about it?
  • How do I deal with the uncertainty and anxiety about the future of the company and my job security?
  • Should I discuss my feelings of layoff survivor guilt with my manager or HR?
  • What steps can I take to maintain my mental health and well-being during this challenging time?
  • How can I prevent survivor guilt from affecting my performance and relationships at work?
  • Are there any resources or support groups available for individuals experiencing layoff survivor guilt?
  • What can the company do to help employees cope with the emotional impact of surviving layoffs?
  • How can I rebuild trust and morale within the team after experiencing layoffs?
  • Will my career progression be affected by the layoffs and, if so, how can I mitigate the impact?

These questions reflect the range of emotions and concerns that individuals may experience after surviving a layoff, highlighting the importance of addressing layoff survivor guilt and providing support to affected employees. Layoff survivor guilt can have profound psychological effects on these individuals, impacting their mental health, job satisfaction, and interpersonal relationships. 

It is essential for organizations to acknowledge and address this phenomenon, providing support, resources, and reassurance to help employees cope with the emotional challenges of surviving layoffs. Learning how to manage layoff survivors by encouraging open communication, fostering a supportive work culture, and offering opportunities for counseling or peer support can help your employees navigate layoff survivor guilt and build resilience in the face of adversity.

The Essential Guide to Layoffs

How to Manage Layoff Survivors

For employees who have survived a layoff, organizations have a responsibility to provide support and assistance to help them navigate the aftermath of the workforce reduction. Here are several actions organizations can take to support their remaining employees:

Open and Transparent Communication

Clear and honest communication is essential to address employees’ concerns and alleviate anxiety. Companies should openly discuss the reasons behind the layoffs, the impact on the organization, and plans for the future. Providing regular updates and opportunities for employees to ask questions can foster trust and transparency.

Emotional Support Resources

Recognizing the emotional toll of surviving a layoff, companies should offer access to counseling services, employee assistance programs (EAPs), or support groups. Providing confidential avenues for employees to discuss their feelings and seek professional guidance can help them cope with stress, anxiety, and survivor guilt.

Professional Development Opportunities

Companies can invest in the professional development of their remaining employees to enhance their skills, knowledge, and marketability. Offering training programs, workshops, or tuition reimbursement for further education can empower employees to adapt to evolving job roles and advance their careers within the organization.

Flexible Work Arrangements

Recognizing the need for work-life balance and flexibility, companies can implement flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting, flexible hours, or compressed workweeks. Accommodating employees’ individual needs and preferences can improve morale, productivity, and job satisfaction.

Recognition and Appreciation

Amidst the uncertainty of layoffs, employees who remain with the company may feel undervalued or overlooked. Companies should make a concerted effort to recognize and appreciate the contributions of their surviving employees. Whether through verbal appreciation, rewards programs, monetary programs, or employee recognition events, acknowledging employees’ efforts can boost morale and reinforce a sense of belonging and loyalty.

Long-Term Planning and Stability

To alleviate concerns about future job security, companies should articulate a clear vision for the organization’s long-term goals and stability. Providing assurances about the company’s commitment to its employees, financial health, and growth prospects can instill confidence and reduce anxiety among surviving employees.

Outplacement Support for Laid-Off Employees

Believe it or not, one of the biggest factors that influences how surviving employees feel is the way their colleagues are treated in their offboarding. By providing resources such as severance, healthcare, and outplacement programs, you’re showing your employees that they would be taken care of if they were to be in the same situation. 

Outplacement and Employee Retention

Let’s look at an example of how outplacement can help you manage layoff survivor guilt and benefit your organization’s brand and reputation.  

We’ll illustrate this with a scenario involving Company Y, which is currently undergoing a layoff. Instead of adhering to proper layoff protocols, which include offering outplacement support alongside a robust severance package, Company Y opts for a less considerate approach. They convene the affected team at the end of a Friday, informing them abruptly that it’s their final day and sending them off without further assistance.

Predictably, some of these employees will immediately reach out to their colleagues, initiating discussions that may persist over the weekend, exacerbating frustration and negativity. Come Monday, as remaining staff members return to work, they’ll notice the absence of the entire team, sparking rampant speculation and gossip. Those unaware of the situation will seek information from friends, potentially receiving a biased or disillusioned account.

Confronted with this mishandled layoff, employees will inevitably question the company’s values and treatment of its workforce. Some may even commence job searches, preferring to align with an employer that demonstrates greater regard for its employees’ well-being. After all, who desires employment with an entity that fails to prioritize its employees’ futures?

This mishandled event risks tarnishing Company Y’s reputation and sowing seeds of discontent among its remaining workforce. Consequently, if another layoff occurs in the future, Company Y may encounter a retention crisis, as employees opt to depart of their own volition rather than wait to be laid off. This mindset shift could undermine morale and productivity, ultimately harming the company’s long-term success.

By contrast, a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to layoffs–including the provision of outplacement support–can mitigate layoff survivor guilt and preserve the organization’s reputation as an employer of choice. Such measures demonstrate a commitment to employee well-being and foster a positive workplace culture, ultimately enhancing retention and bolstering the company’s brand image.

Contemporary outplacement providers such as Careerminds offer a streamlined and supported path for impacted employees to more quickly and confidently secure new, fulfilling positions. Through our outplacement programs, each participant is matched with a personalized career coach who provides one-on-one guidance throughout the entire job search process. Additionally, participants gain access to our robust online platform and resources, including professional resume writers who help tailor their resumes to bypass applicant tracking systems (ATS) and get in front of more recruiters. 

Our comprehensive outplacement support continues until placement–meaning until the individual successfully secures their next role–providing truly unlimited support for laid-off employees and minimizing stress for everyone in the organization.

Layoff Survivor Guilt: Key Takeaways

Navigating the aftermath of a layoff is a challenging task, both for those directly affected and for the survivors who remain within the organization. Layoff survivor guilt, though often overlooked, can have profound psychological effects on surviving employees and impact the overall morale and productivity of the workforce. By implementing effective strategies and providing support to these employees, organizations can mitigate the negative effects of layoff survivor guilt and foster a positive workplace environment.

Here are the key takeaways:

  • Layoff survivor guilt is a natural response to the emotional turmoil of witnessing colleagues lose their jobs while one remains employed.
  • Surviving employees may experience a range of emotions in response, including relief, guilt, anxiety, and uncertainty about their own future within the organization.
  • Organizations should prioritize open communication, emotional support, and professional development opportunities for surviving employees to help them cope with layoff survivor guilt.
  • Outplacement programs–such as those offered by Careerminds–can provide valuable support to laid-off employees and contribute to a positive organizational reputation.
  • By addressing layoff survivor guilt and supporting both laid-off and surviving employees, organizations can maintain employee morale, productivity, and retention in the long term.

Managing layoff survivor guilt requires proactive measures from organizations to support their employees through periods of transition and uncertainty. By fostering a culture of empathy, transparency, and support, organizations can navigate layoffs with compassion and resilience, ultimately strengthening the bond between employees and the organization.

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Cynthia Orduña

Cynthia Orduña

Cynthia Orduña is a Career and Business Coach with a background in recruiting, human resources, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. She has helped 50+ companies around the world hire and retain talent in cities like LA, SF, NY, Berlin, Tokyo, Sydney, and London. She has also coached over 300 people, from entry to senior levels, in developing their one-of-a-kind career paths, Her work has been featured in publications such as Business Insider, The Balance Careers, The Zoe Report, and more. To learn more you can connect with Cynthia on LinkedIn.

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