Managing

Left behind: Dealing with survivor guilt after layoffs

Jaclyn Densley /

The news in recent days has been full of news about job losses at Fairfax and News Limited as the Australian print media tries to sort out how to make itself profitable. Fairfax will sack 1900 employees in coming weeks. News won’t say how many will go, but the numbers are expected to be high.

Journalists aren’t the only ones in the unemployment line. Financial services company Perpetual is expected to shed 580 positions. The manufacturing sector is shrinking and Qantas has shed scores of workers in recent months.

As workers watch their colleagues and friends walk out the door to an uncertain future, they can suffer difficult emotions.

Dr Hilary Armstrong is the director of education at the Institute of Executive Coaching. She says that workers who make it through a company-wide purge with their jobs intact can suffer from a form of survivor’s guilt.

Survivor’s guilt is commonly associated with people who have gone through a traumatic event, such as a war or a natural disaster. However the symptoms and the feelings for those involved in redundancies are very similar, Armstrong says.

“People get more internally focussed. Relationships in the workplace tend to change, there are a lot more underground conversations because people feel less able to speak out,” she says.

It isn’t just the staff who suffer. Armstrong says that research has shown the effects can take place at an organisational level too. “There is often a fear factor that comes in. People are much more scared to stand up and unable to be innovative and creative.”

The end result is a chain reaction which has serious implications for a company’s bottom line. “It reduces productivity and sometimes these effects can last in an organisation for a long long time,” she says.

The simple fact of corporate life is that sometimes layoffs are necessary. So how do you deal with the fallout?

“I don’t think you can avoid it,” Armstrong says, “but what we’ve found is that if people are dealing with things privately and personally then that perpetrates a culture of secrecy. If organisations recognise that this is a problem then they can put in place conversations where people can talk out their feelings. Once we get it out into the space, it stops trapping people into feeling helpless and hopeless.”

As Australian companies caught in evolving industries are forced to let more and more workers go, this paints a bleak picture for their corporate culture. However Armstrong has a more positive attitude.

“I have an optimistic view of human beings. I think we find ways to make the most out of situations. I think that the culture landscape in organisations is really changing.”

Companies might not be able to avoid survivors’ guilt but they can mollify the effects. Dr Armstrong is often called in to help workers discuss the hard times.

“That’s how I got interested in this area,” she says. “As coaches that’s what we do, part of my work is helping organisations work through these issues. These are conversations and our whole area that we do is the conversations that can be had in workplaces.”

There are practical steps, surprisingly simple, that will help restore morale quickly.

However Armstrong says that companies can’t afford to ignore the psychological ramifications of mass layoffs on those who remain.

“If people are engaged in an organisation and they’re enjoying what they’re doing, the bottom line basically looks after itself. If after layoffs those people shut down, there can be really serious implications for the business.”

For more on engaging staff check out Massive job cuts: Four practical steps to restore morale fast.

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