Workplace Wellbeing

Navigating Shifting Grounds: Layoffs, Workplace Survival Syndrome, and Mental Health

Companies across multiple sectors are implementing hiring freezes, restructuring, and conducting layoffs once again. Here’s how to conduct layoffs with empathy and respect, while also supporting the mental health of remaining employees moving forward—and your own.

Written by
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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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Two women colleagues discussing layoffs

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    This is Part 1 of our blog series for People leaders, Managing Uncertainty, Engagement, and Your Own Mental Health.

    People leaders are at the frontline during uncertain times

    For the past two plus years, HR departments have navigated pandemic safety concerns, layoffs, swings in the economy, difficulty filling positions, and transitioning employees to online work.

    Following the Federal Reserve's recent hike in interest rates, intended to address inflation and decelerate economic growth, companies across multiple sectors are implementing hiring freezes, restructuring, and conducting layoffs once again.

    During times of economic uncertainty, People leaders are tasked with being the emotional shock absorbers for organizations and companies. This can take an especially high toll for people in HR who are highly empathetic and sensitive.

    Here’s how to navigate this shifting ground while conducting layoffs with empathy and respect, and protecting your own mental health as well.

    How layoffs affect People leaders

    As some companies head into new rounds of layoffs, it’s not surprising that many People leaders are struggling.

    A recent study showed that an astounding 98% of HR leaders are burned out, 94% felt overwhelmed within the past six months, and 88% say they dreaded going to work.

    One 22-year HR veteran notes that empathy is the number one skill for People leaders. HR is no longer just about hiring, firing, and discipline, but also “to really support and engage with employees as 'whole humans.'"

    Utilizing empathy and holistically engaging with employees is an excellent way to create workplace environments where mental health and wellbeing are a top priority.

    How layoffs affect employees

    There’s often a visceral emotional shock as workers process the news that they no longer have a job as well as anger, crying, denial, confusion, fear for the future, and sadness at leaving.

    It’s not possible to eliminate those difficult emotions entirely, but it is possible to employ thoughtfulness, empathy, and kindness when laying people off. There’s a big difference between treating laid off employees humanely and treating them like a replaceable, outdated resource.

    Conducting layoffs with empathy and respect

    We’ve all heard about companies who conduct layoffs by inviting those employees to a mass meeting to deliver this life-altering news, and when the call is over their access to email and company resources has been cut off.

    They aren’t given any transitional resources or the chance to process with their manager, and don’t have a way to get in touch with HR to figure out how to file for unemployment. They have no closure and little to no access to follow-up information or the opportunity to ask questions.

    In short, it’s a dehumanizing process.

    The respectful, empathic approach to layoffs begins with a face-to-face conversation with the employees’ manager or someone from HR, who gently delivers the news and acknowledges that being laid off is an extremely difficult and painful situation. The employee has the space to process their feelings, ask questions, and feel heard.

    They are also:

    • Given all the information they need to file for unemployment
    • Provided information about their last paycheck
    • Told when their benefits will end
    • Given HR’s contact information for any follow up questions

    Remember, the way layoffs are conducted will be spoken about by both the person who is let go and among the remaining employees. Layoffs become part of a company’s permanent reputation.

    For employees remaining with a company after layoffs, workplace survivor syndrome is something for People leaders to watch out for and address.

    What is workplace survivor syndrome?

    It’s totally normal for remaining employees to struggle with strong emotions after their coworkers are laid off.

    Workplace survivor syndrome is a spectrum of emotional reactions to layoffs that can strongly affect employees who remain at a company. These may include:

    • Grief from losing coworkers
    • Anxiety around whether their job is secure
    • Guilt about still having a job when their former coworkers don’t
    • Anger that coworkers who became friends have lost jobs
    • Stress from overwork due to fewer employees and more on their plate

    If left unaddressed, workplace survival syndrome can lead to increased employee burnout, stress, insecurity, lower morale, and loss of trust and engagement.

    There are ways to spur engagement and support remaining employees to mitigate the aftereffects of layoffs.

    It’s also important to note that People leaders are not exempt from survivor syndrome, and have the added complication of helping employees cope while dealing with it themselves.

    Supporting employee mental health after layoffs

    Layoffs are hard on everyone. After this happens, the most important part of moving forward is open, clear, ongoing communication. Communication is everything amid the uncertainty and fear remaining employees are sure to feel.

    Clearly communicate the company’s direction to remaining employees, so they understand there’s a coherent plan moving forward. It’s harmful to allow fear-based rumors and speculation about the company’s future plans to spread.

    Remaining employees are also going to have questions about changing roles, report structures, and additional responsibilities following layoffs. So, be sure to:

    • Have a detailed plan for how teams and assignments will be restructured after layoffs and communicate with employees on how their responsibilities will change
    • Create a two-way dialogue with employees, especially if they are taking on more responsibilities.
    • Regularly check in on remaining employees to see how they are handling layoffs and new responsibilities, and let them know how much they’re valued.
    • Give employees space to talk about the survivor syndrome feelings they’re having
    • Offer a mental health benefit so employees have the option to process their feelings with a therapist or a coach

    A supportive environment is part of the post layoff equation that moves a company forward in a healthy way. At the same time, it’s also important to simultaneously reforge relationship bonds and focus on re-engaging remaining employees.

    Resetting the focus, fostering communication, and centering relationships

    While employees process their feelings about layoffs—which takes time—it’s also helpful to create a sense of movement and new growth by:

    • Stimulating creativity for remaining employees. Give teams and individuals the green light to finally work on the passion project that’s been sitting on the back burner, or focus on outside-of-the-box solutions to existing problems.
    • Emphasize team building and create open lines of communication. Bring people together and create a safe space to talk about how they’re adjusting to the new workplace reality and what needs they have going forward.
    • Be okay with a slower pace. Employees are adjusting to a different workload while also processing the grief of losing colleagues. Instead of putting more work on their plates, pause the projects that aren’t urgent. 

    Prioritize your own self care

    Last, but certainly not least, it’s critical for People leaders to make ongoing self care a priority and be aware of their own feelings after conducting layoffs. 

    They’re likely dealing with their own grief from losing friends and coworkers while also shouldering the negative emotions around layoffs and supporting remaining employees.

    That’s a lot to handle. To effectively support your employees, you have to feel mentally healthy first. 

    How Spring Health supports employees during times of transition

    After layoffs, there’s a period of transition and processing that happens at the individual and team level, as the remaining employees sift through the emotions of seeing their coworkers and friends laid off. 

    Those emotions can fester, creating lower engagement and higher rates of burnout and attrition if employees don’t have a way to process them. 

    Two newly released studies prove that Spring Health delivers clinical improvements for employees and positive financial ROI for your company. 

    With Spring Health, employees:

    • Are 60% less likely to leave their jobs
    • Reliably (70%) improved their mental health
    • Have 25% fewer missed work days
    • Have a 24% increase in productivity

    Layoffs are hard on everyone. They are also part of adapting to shifting economic conditions and an unfortunate reality of doing business.

    But it’s still possible to treat laid off employees with humanity and respect while also supporting the mental health of remaining employees moving forward.

    Read this blog next to discover how HR leaders can transform burnout into sustained enthusiasm.

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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