Survivor Syndrome

Survivor Syndrome…turning survivors into thrivers?

When a company decides it needs to cut costs, redundancies will often be top of the list of considerations. How an organisation handles the redundancy process is key to retaining your best employees, not only to avoid unnecessary claims for unfair selection but also to give your remaining staff the confidence that the organisation treats its employees fairly and with respect. If you get it wrong, the staff you thought you could rely on following a redundancy process could see you in a different light and may decide to quickly put their own exit strategy into play.

Although workplace leaders tend to be most concerned with delivering the news to those employees losing their jobs, it is also vital that they do not overlook the emotions of those employees retaining their jobs. Those left behind can often feel a complicated mix of relief and guilt for not suffering the same fate as their co-workers. Organisational psychologists have said this is a type of ‘survivor syndrome’ or ‘survivor guilt’. Survivor syndrome is a common side effect of any trauma, but COVID-19 has increased its prevalence tenfold.

The pervading feeling for employees who have kept their jobs will be relief, but this can give way to apprehension about their own future within the business, and in turn lower morale and motivation. In our experience, normalising survivor syndrome is the first step to overcoming it.

Research indicates that “survivors” of restructures and redundancies are often the ones ignored during such processes, as the focus is placed on the formalities of the process and exiting people out of the business. Yet it is this group of employees who are the lynchpin to the organisation’s future success.

One of the most difficult tasks facing any manager, therefore, is how to motivate staff demoralised by recent redundancies, and to ensure that they are felt valued within the workplace. No company wants an angry, disaffected workforce and the worst thing a manager can do is turn a blind eye to the issue.

Left unchecked, it has the potential to be fundamentally damaging to your already-exposed organisation.

So here are our 5 tips for managing survivor syndrome: –

  • Direct and open communication– Clear lines of communication are critical. The best thing to do is acknowledge what has taken place. Honest communication on a range of issues is what will bring people back from the brink. If people are not informed – or, worse still, misinformed – relationships will break down, without question. A clear vision for the future that lets survivors see where their role fits in the future plans of the business will be the foundation for boosting morale, raising performance and allowing the business to move forward.

Several things will have changed in the organisation, and everyone will need to be kept informed. The business’s structure will have changed. People’s roles and their positions within the overall team will have changed. Staff will need to understand who is working where and who is now responsible for different processes. Procedures may be affected by the change so will need to be reviewed and communicated to avoid confusion.

  • Provide emotional support – Giving redundancy survivors emotional support should help to reduce any adverse reactions to the redundancy programme and is likely to minimise the risk of negative consequences for the business. Consider providing employees with access to occupational health and Employee Assistance programmes.
  • Remember the importance of company culture – At a time like no other, positive company cultures which put people first have never been so important. Your team members need to feel part of an organisation which lives and breathes strong values. By communicating your company culture¬†and how it enables your business, it becomes more consistent and more effective with everyone understanding it. This is essential for unifying team members and growing a sense of ‘one for all and all for one’. This helps foster motivation and productivity levels, reinforcing team mentality.
  • Establish clear vision moving forward – For those feeling like they might be ‘next’, a clear plan is key. If an employee knows that there is work ready for them, they’ll feel like a valued member of the team. This will help address their anxiety and boost their motivations levels which, in turn, helps them remain productive. Business leaders need to be role models and clearly demonstrate the steps they are taking to navigate their way through difficult times.
  • Show survivors that you are supporting outgoing colleagues – Providing support to outgoing employees is imperative and should be part of every organised redundancy programme. Consider outplacement support to help those who are leaving find employment elsewhere and encourage them to stay in touch. Explain to your remaining employees what you are doing to support outgoing colleagues and share any positive developments.