Layoff Survivor Sickness Syndrome
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Early March, Jeannette, a manager for a local non-profit received a phone call from her boss telling her Sharon and others have been laid off due to the coronavirus. She was being assigned her colleague’s workload without a definitive timeline for relief. Jeannette felt overwhelmed and afraid to raise concerns with her boss to not jeopardize her employment situation. Unknowingly, she had become a lay-off survivor.
While conducting research, I learned that employers devote most of their time arranging severance packages, and outplacement services for the departed. This half-baked approach ignores the fact that distrust in management will run deep, morale will be low and managers will struggle to motivate remaining employees. As a manager, it will be wise to balance time and energy with those who remain. What can you do to mitigate the impact of layoffs & help your employees cope with the new reality?
What You Need to Know: The Psychological Impact
Lay-off survivors experienced feelings of anger, guilt, anxiety, stress, uncertainty, and depression in addition to increased workloads. These psychological states constitute to what’s commonly known as Layoff Survivor Sickness Syndrome (Qureshi & Arslan, 2014.)
A layoff survivor goes through a complex psychological experience mainly due to the loss of the relationship with the departed co-worker and the fear of the uncertain future with their employer. Studies have shown that employees can present these psychological states several months after the lay-off or even years, significantly impacting their performance Qureshi & Arslan, 2014.)
Anxiety about employment outcomes will govern the remaining employees’ psychological state leading to low levels of productivity. To regain some control over their uncertain situation, many employees will update their resumes and begin a job search. These actions will help them feel better but can be bad news for the company, as some valuable employees may depart.
Research has shown that managers must invest time in repairing the collateral damage of their laid-off decisions by fostering a trusting and secure environment to maintain overall performance (Appelbaum et al., 1999.)
What You Need to Do
Here are five ways to mitigate the impact of layoffs and increase safety and trust among survivors.
1. Start by managing grief in the workplace. Grief defined as the psychological impact of the “end of a relationship.” It can take a physical form as the death of a loved one or a psychological form as the layoff of a co-worker. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross & David Kessler described six grief stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and finding meaning. The stages are not experienced chronologically. While some people may be angry, others can remain in denial. Review your bereavement policies and update them to meet the employee’s needs.
Acting as if it’s business, as usual, will only hurt your relationship with your employees. Instead, listen actively and exercise compassion when employees seem fearful if they will be next to receive a pink slip. Trying to suppress your feelings, can increase your levels of stress. Acknowledge your feelings of loss and share your coping strategies to demonstrate that you are human.
Employees may be seeking to find meaning in their work. Thus, centering your decisions around your corporate purpose & communicating it could help them feel secure and motivated to drive harder.
The human soul doesn`t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed – to be seen, heard, and companioned exactly as it is. – Parker Palme
2. Lead by example and effectively manage: Recently, many large corporations have instituted well-meaning leave of absence policies to help overburdened employees cope with stress. However, anecdotal sources reveal that those taking leave are the exception, not the rule. As it turns out, when new policies are announced, employees examine “what others do and what other people think they should do”, commonly known as social expectations. If managers are not taking leave, employees may interpret this as a signal that is not safe to take it either. At the same time, they may experience loss aversion bias & feel fear of losing their job or ruining their reputation by being labeled a bad team player. For a policy to be fully adopted, you must model the behavior and be transparent about any possible consequences.
3. Create space for human connection: Relationships can be strengthened in times of difficulty. Carve out space for employees to connect with one-another without personal agendas. Invite them to share personal stories of struggle and triumphs. Several managers are holding “virtual office hours” for employees to have one-on-one communication or “virtual coffees” to create collective spaces. Encourage employees to create their own virtual spaces for connections that may not include you.
4. Rebalance workload fairly: It is easy to allocate the remaining work to the person who volunteered or is closely related to the function, but this approach may lead to employees experiencing burn-out. Nowadays, many employees report working 24/7 to avoid dealing with the coronavirus threat. Don’t rely on one person to prioritize and reassign work; instead, hold a meeting with your entire team to allocate critical work and evenly re-distribute the functions across the team to meet business objectives. You may even need to eliminate some components of the workload. Know that procedural justice is always in employees’ minds when you are making decisions. Allocate tasks fairly to avoid permanent damage to your relationships with your team.
5. Over-communicate: In times of uncertainty, employees seek information to feel confident. If you do not communicate often and candidly, water cooler conversations and rumors will grow. These secondary sources of information can easily lead to disinformation and more distrust. Share what you know, even if you don’t have all the answers. Resist the urge to say that everything will be ok, and nothing will change, as it will be further from the truth, and employees can smell fake news. Brian Chesky, Airbnb CEO balances optimism with honesty because he knows that employees are looking at him to see if things are going to be ok.
Consider frequent touch points using various mediums of communications including emails, phone calls, instant messaging, or virtual meetings. These will help foster deeper relationships and reduce employee anxiety.
Lastly, encourage the use of external resources such as support groups or counseling. In times of crisis, managerial effectiveness will be tested, and your primary role will be to exercise compassion and provide clear direction to drive focus & certainty. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate and create clear guidelines for workload re-allocation. Built trust in your leadership by demonstrating that employees’ psychological well-being is as important as your investors’ returns.
- Lay-off Survivor Sickness Syndrome (Investigating the Lasting Impact on Performance of Survivors in the Context of Age and Gender in Private Sector Organizations of Pakistan) International Journal of Human Resource StudiesISSN 2162-3058 2014, Vol. 4, No. 3
- Bravanec, S. 2006. Impact of time on survivors. San Jose State University: ProQuest LLC.
- David Noer, Healing the wounds, overcoming the trauma of layoff and revitalizing downsized organizations. Jorskey-Bass Publishers, 1993
- How to Cope When Coworkers Lose Their Jobs: Layoff Survivors Experience Feelings of Guilt, Sadness, Loss, and Fear.
- Loss aversion:https://www.behavioraleconomics.com/resources/mini-encyclopedia-of-be/loss-aversion/
- Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-norms/