When we consider the impact of job losses – such as recent redundancies or retrenchment arising from the COVID-19 pandemic – it’s natural to focus on those directly impacted by the cut-backs, i.e. those employees who have lost their jobs.
However, the effect of job losses on remaining employees can be particularly traumatic, especially if they experience what’s known as ‘survivor’s guilt’ or ‘survivor’s syndrome’ – a feeling of guilt over the fact that they kept their jobs, while colleagues and friends were not so lucky.
In this article, I’ll be looking at the effects of survivor’s guilt on remaining employees, and how employers can minimise the impact of this syndrome – in order to maintain engagement, motivation, and trust – using a solid outplacement strategy.
What is survivor’s guilt?
Survivor’s guilt can occur in relation to a traumatic event in which someone survived when others did not. As a result, the survivor may feel guilty that they escaped the effects of the event, question why they survived when others didn’t, and wonder whether there was something they could have done to prevent the event from happening.
On a more extreme level, survivor’s guilt is often associated with events involving major trauma, such as death arising from terminal illness, war, or an act of terrorism. However, any event which is traumatic – such as seeing those around you losing their jobs – can result in a degree of survivor’s guilt in those who escaped the direct impact of the event.
The symptoms of survivor’s guilt can include the following:
- Irritability and anger
- Fear and confusion
- Lack of motivation
- Trouble sleeping
- Obsessive thoughts about the situation
- Feelings of helplessness and disconnection
- Physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea
What is the impact of survivor’s guilt in the workplace?
Considering the symptoms of survivor’s guilt, it’s not hard to see why employees experiencing this syndrome would struggle to work productively and maintain focus in their jobs.
In fact, a study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) of more than 4000 workers who kept their jobs following organisational lay-offs, reported that over 75% had experienced a drop in their own productivity. The study also revealed that:
- 87% were less likely to recommend their organisation as a good place to work
- 81% believed customer service has declined
- 77% saw more errors being made in the workplace
- 64% said their colleagues’ productivity has declined
As a result of survivor’s guilt in response to job losses, workplaces are likely to face problems ranging from reduced engagement and productivity, lower motivation, less trust between employees and their employer, and higher overall levels of anxiety, stress and fear.
In our current climate, the trauma of redundancies or retrenchment will be compounded by the fear and disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. More than ever, the feeling of uncertainty over what the future may hold – and the sudden nature of these changes in the workplace – is likely to add to the anxiety, confusion, and guilt experienced by surviving employees.
How can employers use outplacement to minimise the impact of survivor guilt in remaining employees?
Offering an outplacement program to departing employees can be extremely effective – not just in terms of supporting outgoing staff members, but also in the positive message it communicates to those remaining in employment.
Outplacement offers reassurance to surviving employees
For employees who have not suffered job losses, seeing their former colleagues being treated with fairness and respect during their departure period will provide reassurance that they too will be treated well and receive adequate support should they face the same circumstances.
An outplacement program shows employers are committed to upholding their values
Remaining staff members who witness outgoing employees receiving outplacement support will also have greater faith in the values of their employer. Offering outplacement sends a clear message that the employer is committed to upholding their values at every stage of the employee lifecycle, which will lead to employees feeling more trusting of their employer.
Seeing their colleagues receive outplacement provides peace of mind
Witnessing the level of support their departing employees have received via an outplacement program is likely to contribute towards greater peace of mind for remaining employees, leading to lower levels of fear and anxiety. By supporting the mental health of employees in this way, they will be able to work more effectively, have greater focus, and feel more engaged and connected with their employer.
Outplacement can result in higher levels of motivation and productivity in surviving employees
As a result of making surviving employees feel more reassured and confident, employers can help their staff members work more productively and feel motivated to continue performing their jobs as normal. By lessening the impact of survivor’s guilt, outplacement can help ensure surviving employees aren’t held back by anxiety, fear and confusion following redundancies or retrenchment.
Career365’s affordable online outplacement programs – delivered via online training modules and video-based coaching – can be accessed from any location, at any time, on any device, making them ideal for a COVID-19 environment.
If you need support or advice on outplacement services for retrenched employees in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, visit www.career365.com.au to find out more about our fully online outplacement programs.
Greg Weiss has authored two books about career transitioning and is soon to release a third. He has deep expertise in outplacement and employee onboarding, and is the Founder of Career365 (formerly CareerSupport365) – a leading Australian employee transitioning firm, specialising in outplacement and employee onboarding.