Workplace Wellbeing

Navigating Shifting Grounds: Layoffs and Workplace Survival Syndrome

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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    During the past few years, HR departments have navigated challenges such as safety concerns, layoffs, economic fluctuations, hiring difficulties, and shifts to remote or hybrid work.

    In times of economic uncertainty, People leaders serve as emotional anchors for organizations. This responsibility is particularly demanding for HR professionals, who are known for their high levels of empathy and sensitivity.

    If you're facing layoffs, it's essential to navigate this difficult process with empathy and respect while safeguarding your mental well-being. Here's how to strike that balance effectively.

    How layoffs affect employees

    The news of job loss often triggers intense emotional reactions among employees, ranging from visceral shock to anger, denial, confusion, fear, and sadness about leaving.

    While it’s impossible to eradicate these challenging emotions, it’s within our power to approach layoffs with thoughtfulness, empathy, and kindness. There’s a significant distinction between handling laid-off employees with humanity and recognizing their value, as opposed to treating them as disposable or obsolete resources. 

    What is workplace survivor syndrome?

    Workplace survivor syndrome refers to the psychological impact that follows a workplace layoff or downsizing, leaving surviving employees with feelings of guilt, betrayal, and diminished self-confidence. This phenomenon can significantly influence both professional and personal aspects of an individual’s life, making it crucial to recognize its symptoms and seek help if needed.

    Employees who endure workplace survivor syndrome may experience a range of emotions, including:

    • Grief over lost coworkers
    • Anxiety about job security
    • Guilt for still having a job
    • Anger over the loss of friends at work
    • Stress due to increased workload caused by reduced staff

    If left unaddressed, workplace survival syndrome can result in heightened employee burnout, stress, insecurity, diminished morale, and a decline in trust and engagement within the workplace.

    It’s essential to implement strategies that promote engagement and support existing employees, thereby alleviating the aftermath of layoffs. Additionally, it’s crucial to acknowledge that People leaders aren’t immune to survivor syndrome, which complicates their role as they assist employees in coping while dealing with their challenges. 

    How layoffs affect People leaders

    As companies face new rounds of layoffs, it’s unsurprising that many People leaders are finding this challenging.

    A recent study revealed that 98% of HR leaders are experiencing burnout, 94% have felt overwhelmed in the past six months, and 88% dread going to work.

    A seasoned HR professional with 22 years of experience emphasizes the pivotal role of empathy for leaders. HR is no longer just about hiring, firing, and discipline, but also “to really support and engage with employees as 'whole humans.'"

    By employing empathy and embracing a holistic approach to employee engagement, organizations can foster workplace environments where mental health and well-being take precedence, ultimately creating a more supportive and sustainable work culture.

    Conducting layoffs with empathy and respect

    We’re all familiar with the stories of companies that handle layoffs in a cold and impersonal manner. Employees are called to a mass meeting to receive life-altering news, only to find their access to company resources cut off immediately after the call.

    They are left without transitional support, unable to process the situation with their manager, and have no means to contact HR for essential tasks like filing for unemployment. It’s an inherently dehumanizing process.

    A respectful and empathic approach to layoffs, on the other hand, involves initiating a face-to-face conversation with the affected employee’s manager or HR representative. In this compassionate discussion, the news is delivered gently, acknowledging the challenging and painful nature of the situation. This approach allows employees to process emotions, ask questions, and feel heard and respected.

    During this conversation, it’s essential for employees to be:

    • Provided with all the necessary information to file for unemployment
    • Informed about their final paycheck details
    • Given clarity on when their benefits will cease
    • Provided with HR’s contact information for any follow-up questions

    It’s crucial to recognize that how layoffs are handled becomes a lasting part of the company’s reputation. How these difficult situations are managed will be shared by affected employees and discussed among the remaining workforce, shaping the company’s permanent image.

    People leaders must be vigilant about addressing workplace survivor syndrome with employees who remain with the company after layoffs. This phenomenon can deeply affect the morale and well-being of these employees, making it essential for HR professionals to provide support, understanding, and resources to help them navigate these challenging times.

    Supporting employee mental health after layoffs

    Following layoffs, open and transparent communication becomes paramount in moving forward. Amid the fear and uncertainty experienced by remaining employees, clear communication serves as a guiding light.

    To foster stability and dispel fear-driven rumors, it’s essential to communicate the company’s direction coherently. Avoiding speculation about plans and openly sharing the organization’s strategy can alleviate anxieties.  

    Additionally, address the concerns of remaining employees regarding changing roles, reporting structures, and increased responsibilities. Be sure to:

    1. Develop a detailed plan for restructuring teams and assignments after layoffs and communicate these changes clearly to employees.
    2. Establish a two-way dialogue with employees, especially those taking on additional responsibilities. Encourage them to share their thoughts and concerns.
    3. Regularly check in with remaining employees to gauge their response to the layoffs and new roles. Express appreciation for their efforts and reassure them of their value.
    4. Acknowledge and create space for employees to discuss any survivor syndrome feelings they may be experiencing. Encourage open conversations about their emotions and concerns.
    5. Provide mental health benefits, allowing employees to process their feelings with a therapist or a coach. Supporting their emotional well-being is crucial.

    In this supportive environment, relationships can be rebuilt, and efforts can be directed toward re-engaging the remaining employees. By emphasizing open communication, empathy, and mental health support, companies can nurture a healthy post-layoff environment that promotes healing, growth, and resilience among the workforce.

    Resetting the focus, fostering communication, and centering relationships

    As employees navigate their emotions in the aftermath of layoffs, a sense of movement and new growth can be fostered by:

    • Stimulating creativity for remaining employees. Give teams and individuals the green light to finally work on the passion project 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 discuss adjusting to the new workplace reality and their needs 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

    People leaders must prioritize ongoing self-care and be attuned to their own emotions after conducting layoffs. Coping with the grief of losing friends and colleagues, managing the negative feelings associated with layoffs, and supporting the remaining employees can be incredibly taxing. 

    Recognizing and acknowledging these emotions is crucial. People leaders must understand that to support their employees effectively, they need to prioritize their own mental and emotional well-being first. 

    Taking the time for self-care, seeking support when needed, and practicing healthy coping mechanisms are essential steps toward maintaining mental health. This enables People leaders to offer genuine support and compassion to their teams during challenging times.

    How mental health support benefits employees during times of transition

    After layoffs, a period of transition and emotional processing occurs at individual and team levels as remaining employees grapple with the impact of their coworkers and friends being let go. If these emotions are not addressed, they can fester, leading to decreased engagement, increased burnout, and higher employee attrition rates.

    Recent studies prove that an innovative EAP offers significant benefits for both employees and companies, leading to positive clinical outcomes and financial returns. With Spring Health, employees experience:

    • 22% less likelihood of leaving their jobs
    • Consistently improved mental health (70%)
    • 12% fewer missed work days
    • 12% increase in productivity

    While layoffs are undoubtedly challenging, they’re also a part of adapting to shifting economic conditions and the realities of doing business. However, it’s still possible to handle these situations with humanity and respect.

    By supporting the mental health of both laid-off and remaining employees, companies can foster a compassionate and resilient workplace environment, even in the face of difficult transitions.

    Learn how offering a comprehensive mental health benefit to current and future leaders can alleviate uncertainty, anxiety, and stress amid layoffs and organizational changes. 

    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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