“Survivors Guilt”– Impacting Engagement & Productivity

7 Feb

There’s a very sobering article in Time Magazine about so-called “Survivors Guilt”, the feelings of those working at a company that just went through a layoff and are still working– they survived the RIF. The article describes this syndrome:

Losing your paycheck in a recession is certainly awful, and those who hold on to their jobs are no doubt better off than their fallen colleagues. But watching colleagues pack their things and go — and dealing with guilt that it wasn’t you, anxiety that you might be next, exhaustion from the extra work you must take on and even envy of those who get to leave such a sullen environment — that’s not much cause for celebration. “Companies use the word affected with people who lose their jobs — the implication being that the people who remain aren’t,” says Joel Brockner, a social psychologist and professor of management at Columbia Business School. “They’re very much affected.”

Here’s how it feels to be one of the lucky ones: “It’s depressing,” says a market researcher in New York City who recently watched an entire division of her company be jettisoned. “You walk into the office and it’s quiet, the entire atmosphere is different. When someone gets promoted you want to say, ‘That’s great,’ but then you realize they got the job because the two other people in that group got laid off; this person was cheaper. You start feeling evil. People say at least you have a job, you should be grateful. Well, I’m not sure how happy I am. And then I feel selfish about that.”

The terms psychologists toss around to describe these feelings include survivor’s guilt (why him and not me?), survivor’s envy (thinking you might be better off gone too) and emotional contagion (the tendency to pick up your laid-off colleagues’ feelings of gloom and desperation). These feelings are with us in every recession, but as layoffs spread to more industries, people in all walks of life are increasingly experiencing them.

Fellow blogger Robin Tucker at The Proper Angle offers excellent advice to assist survivors. Her counsel is similar to what Leigh Branham and I have seen in our work in Beating the Bear Market with Engaged Employees.

Consider:

  • What can we do to make sure that departed employees are treated with dignity, so that their transition is as smooth as possible?
  • How can we work to allow “surviving” employees the communication channels they need to deal with their own feelings about this event?
  • Can we train our managers to more effectively spot employees who are not dealing well with this change?

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