Workplace Wellbeing

Navigating Shifting Grounds: Layoffs and Workplace Survival Syndrome

Here’s how to conduct layoffs with empathy and respect, all while championing the mental well-being of both your remaining team and yourself.

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

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    In recent years, HR departments have navigated safety concerns, layoffs, economic shifts, hiring challenges, and the transition to remote or hybrid work.

    During periods of economic uncertainty, People leaders play a crucial role as emotional anchors for organizations. This responsibility can be incredibly demanding for HR professionals known for their high levels of empathy and sensitivity.

    If you find yourself dealing with layoffs, navigating this complicated process with empathy and respect is essential, all while safeguarding your mental well-being. Here's how to strike that balance effectively.

    How layoffs affect employees

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

    Though it’s impossible to eliminate these challenging emotions, we can approach layoffs with thoughtfulness, empathy, and kindness. Recognizing the significant distinction between treating laid-off employees with humanity and acknowledging their value rather than viewing them as disposable or obsolete resources is crucial. 

    What is workplace survivor syndrome?

    Workplace survivor syndrome refers to the psychological impact following a workplace layoff or downsizing, which can leave surviving employees grappling with feelings of guilt, betrayal, and diminished self-confidence. This phenomenon significantly influences professional and personal aspects of an individual’s life, making it important to recognize its symptoms and seek help.

    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 from reduced staff

    Unaddressed workplace survival syndrome can lead to heightened employee burnout, stress, insecurity, diminished morale, and a decline in trust and engagement.

    Implementing strategies to promote engagement and support existing employees is essential in alleviating the aftermath of layoffs. It’s important 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 own challenges. 

    How layoffs affect People leaders

    As companies face new layoffs, it’s unsurprising that many People leaders find these challenges overwhelming.

    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 support and engage with employees as 'whole humans.'"

    Organizations can cultivate workplace environments prioritizing mental health and well-being by incorporating empathy and adopting a holistic approach to employee engagement. This shift can contribute to creating a more supportive and sustainable work culture.

    Conducting layoffs with empathy and respect

    We’re all familiar with the stories of companies handling layoffs coldly and impersonally. Employees attend a mass meeting to receive life-altering news, only to find their access to company resources cut off immediately after the call.

    This approach lacks transitional support, leaving individuals unable to process the situation with their manager and with no means to contact HR for essential tasks like filing for unemployment. It’s an inherently dehumanizing process.

    On the other hand, a respectful and empathic approach to layoffs involves face-to-face conversations 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, employees need to be:

    • Provided with all 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

    Crucially, 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. Avoid speculation about plans and openly share the organization’s strategy to alleviate anxieties.  

    Additionally, address the concerns of remaining employees regarding changing roles, reporting structures, and increased responsibilities. Take the following steps:

    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, fostering movement and new growth involves:

    • Stimulating creativity: Encourage remaining employees to explore passion projects or think outside the box for innovative solutions. Provide the green light for creative endeavors that have been on the back burner.
    • Emphasizing team building: Create an environment for open communication and team building. Bring people together to discuss adjusting to the new workplace reality and address their evolving needs. Establish a safe space for these conversations.
    • Embracing a slower pace: Recognize the adjustment employees undergo—coping with a different workload and processing the loss of colleagues. Instead of adding more tasks, consider pausing non-urgent projects. Allow time for reflection and adaptation without overwhelming them.

    Prioritize your self care

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

    Recognizing and acknowledging these emotions is crucial. To support their teams effectively, People leaders must understand that prioritizing their own mental and emotional well-being is a necessary foundation. 

    Taking time for self-care, seeking support when needed, and employing healthy coping mechanisms are essential steps toward maintaining mental health. These practices empower 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, individuals and teams undergo a transition and emotional processing as they grapple with the impact of colleagues and friends being let go. If these emotions go unaddressed, they can lead to decreased engagement, increased burnout, and higher employee attrition rates.

    Recent studies highlight the significant benefits of an innovative EAP like Spring Health, resulting in positive clinical outcomes and financial return on investment. Employees using Spring Health experience:

    • 22% less likelihood of leaving their jobs
    • Consistent 70% improvement in mental health
    • 12% fewer missed workdays
    • 12% increase in productivity

    While layoffs are undoubtedly challenging, they’re part of adapting to shifting economic conditions and business realities. Nevertheless, handling these situations with humanity and respect is still possible.

    Companies can cultivate a compassionate and resilient workplace environment, even in the face of difficult transitions, by actively supporting the mental health of both laid-off and remaining employees.

    Learn how offering current and future leaders a comprehensive mental health benefit 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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