Though U.S. job creation has been impressive — 517,000 jobs were added in January and unemployment dropped to 3.4%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor — mass layoffs have been occurring in various sectors. Disney, Zoom, Dell, Google, FedEx and Amazon are just a few of the mega-corporations to recently announce major cuts in their workforce.
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Though, of course, it’s most painful for the employees who are losing their jobs, layoffs actually don’t just affect the person who is being removed from the company; there is a phenomenon known as layoff survivor syndrome that can afflict employees left behind after a layoff. And it can wreak havoc on their self-esteem and overall well-being.
Layoff Survivor Syndrome: What Is It and How Does It Manifest?
Also called layoff survivor sickness and layoff survivor guilt, layoff survivor syndrome is often experienced as guilt, stress, depression and/or anxiety after others in your department or company have been let go. The term began picking up steam during the height of the pandemic when we saw massive job loss across the board.
“The new business environment caused by the pandemic has led to a new kind of syndrome becoming commonplace in workplaces: Layoff Survivor Syndrome,” said Angelie Kapoor, a career and leadership coach, and the founder of Oversight Global, LLC. “It’s a frequently overlooked repercussion of layoffs and can make everyday at work difficult for managers and those still on staff. Those left behind are often subjected to greater workloads or longer hours, causing anxiety and feelings of overwhelm. Symptoms can range from stress-related physical ailments like headaches and difficulty sleeping, to having difficulty trusting management or employers.”
How Employees Can Cope With Layoff Survivor Syndrome
Here are some tips on how to deal if you survive layoffs at your company.
Acknowledge Your Feelings as Normal
Angry? Guilty? Sad? Anxious? These are all normal feelings to experience when your coworkers have been let go, and acknowledging them as such is the first step to coping with layoff survivor syndrome.
“If you try to bottle up your emotions, they will only come out in other ways, such as through physical symptoms or unhealthy coping mechanisms,” Kapoor said.
Talk To Someone
A therapist would be an ideal person to talk to if you’re experiencing symptoms of layoff survivor syndrome, but in the absence of a professional, a friend or trusted family member may be useful for emotional support.
“It can be helpful to talk to someone about your experiences and feelings related to the layoffs,” Kapoor said. “Talking about what you’re going through can help you to process your emotions and make them more manageable.”
Make a List
It’s important to stay focused; after all, you still have a job to do, and presumably it’s one you’d like to keep. Or is it?
“Make a list of short-term and long-term goals, and prioritize them to ensure you are still aligned with your purpose and focus,” said William Stonehouse III, president and co-founder of Crawford Thomas Recruiting. “This will give you something to work towards and a sense of accomplishment.”
Focus On the Positives
A very bad thing has just happened to your coworkers. But try to be optimistic whenever possible.
“When facing challenges, it’s easy to become negative and disengaged. Focus on the positive aspects of your job and the organization,” Stonehouse III said. “Acknowledge the progress that has been made, celebrate small victories and use this transition period as an opportunity to improve.”
Take Care of Yourself
Layoffs are stressful. Not only might you be feeling bad that you still have your job when others you care about don’t, but you may be worrying about whether you won’t also be laid off in the coming months. Amid all the stress, it’s crucial to step up self-care.
“It’s important to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally after a series of layoffs,” Kapoor said. “Make sure to eat healthy meals, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and take breaks when needed. It’s also important to find healthy ways to cope with stress, such as through relaxation techniques or hobbies.”
What Employers Can Do To Help
Though employees must learn to cope with layoff survivor syndrome, their employers should also be doing their best to run an organization that makes doing so easy. That means being hospitable, transparent and showing that they’re human.
The first thing employers should do is offer up support for employees who may be struggling amid or after a wave of layoffs — even if no one asks for it.
“Employers can provide support to employees by offering assistance programs, counseling services and mentorship programs,” Stonehouse III said. “This can help employees cope with stress and build resilience, while also humanizing the unfortunate layoff process.”
Layoffs are scary, and part of what makes them so is that they tend to happen seemingly out of nowhere. Employers need to lift the veil and be communicative.
“Open communication is crucial during times of uncertainty,” Stonehouse III said. “Employers should be transparent about the organization’s future plans, including any potential changes or future layoffs. This will help employees that remain to feel informed and valued.”
Employees may be feeling a bit raw and wounded in the wake of layoffs. Employers need to step up and show them that they appreciate those who remain.
“Employers can show appreciation to employees for their hard work and dedication through recognition programs, bonuses or by simply expressing gratitude,” Stonehouse III said. “Employees who feel valued are often driven to contribute to the organization’s success.”
Address Any Excess Workloads
Who’s picking up all the work the laid-off employee(s) left behind? This is an important topic to address.
“An additional concern following a layoff is the resulting impact on survivor workload. If surviving employees are expected to pick up the workload of laid-off employees without any recognition (financial or otherwise) there will almost certainly be feelings of resentment and negative impacts on engagement, productivity and morale,” said Scott Nostaja, National Organizational Effectiveness Practice Leader and SVP at Segal. “Employers should regularly assess the impact that layoffs have on survivor workloads, including impacts on work-life balance, and equitably address those impacts as proactively as possible.”
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