Few businesses have come through the past year unscathed. Covid-19 has ravaged the global economy, compromising the profitability of many organisations. With the furlough scheme coming to an end, businesses are restructuring, making record numbers of redundancies in the process.
Getting organisational change right is hard, but there are established and recognised change management processes that businesses can follow to maximise the chance of success. However, leaders mustn’t forget about the human cost of change and the impact on employee wellbeing.
Whenever I see the devastating headlines of ‘X thousand jobs lost’, I can’t help but imagine the hard-working people behind the statistics. You only have to look at your LinkedIn feed to see the outstanding array of talent with the green #opentowork sign along their profile picture.
But for every job lost there are many that remain. What are the consequences for the people who don’t get made redundant? How should we be supporting the ‘survivors’ of restructuring and redundancy programmes?
What is survivor syndrome at work?
Survivor syndrome describes the adverse psychological effects that employees feel in the wake of redundancies. It affects individuals very differently and can lead to negative organisational outcomes, even if the redundancy programme achieved its goals and proved a financial success.
What are the symptoms of survivor syndrome in the workplace?
Among those who survive a redundancy programme, common emotions include feeling guilty about surviving, insecure about the future, resentful of perceived unfairness, and distrustful of leadership.
These negative emotions in turn lead to a number of organisational symptoms:
- Reduced morale and job motivation
- Increased absenteeism
- Increased risk avoidance
- Reduced organisational commitment and employee engagement
- Slower decision making
- Decreasing productivity
- Increased levels of workplace stress
- Greater task focus by managers
Many of these factors are already being exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic; with the switch to homeworking, employees are grappling with a new way of working, new technologies, new interferences and less social connection all at once. Adding survivor syndrome into this cocktail represents a serious threat to business success. If not tackled, survivor syndrome will damage your organisation’s morale and productivity as well as ultimately leading people to leave by choice.
What can businesses do to minimise survivor syndrome?
Research suggests that leaders can help their people to bounce forward after a restructure. Here are five tips for reducing the effects of survivor syndrome at work:
Show that you’re human
Be honest, show vulnerability. Let people know how you’ve found the last few months and the emotional impact of the decisions you’ve had to take. Talk about the highs as well as the lows and remind your people that you are human too. It’s easy to slip into a routine of communicating the facts – what is happening, why, etc. But there’s a lot to be said for a leader who admits “this has been a bloody tough few months.”
This will help to limit resentment that your people might feel towards the business after having had the restructure ‘done to them’. When we feel a loss of control, a fight-or-flight response is produced in the brain. This can’t be entirely avoided, but by talking authentically with your people about the challenges that you and the business have faced and why you responded in the way that you did, you’ll remind them that it’s not the organisation that has taken away their control, but the pandemic. It will help rebuild trust and remind them that you are all one team.
Inspire people with your authentic vision for the future
Share a clear vision for the future that gets survivors excited about what is possible and helps them understand their role in making this a reality. Actively encouraging your people to talk about their hopes and fears as this will help bring them along with you.
Ensure that there are vertical and horizontal lines of communication so people can be honest about what is going on for them. Providing clear messages from the top and generating a safe space where people can make sense of them will help to rebuild trust and limit the damage to morale. Without it, people will bottle up their frustrations and undermine official communications with hearsay.
Set short-term achievable goals
At a macro level, people are already facing high levels of uncertainty about their health, the economy and their job security. At a micro level, they may be missing valued colleagues and friends, worrying how workload is going to be managed with less staff, and emotionally exhausted from the change they’ve been going through. In these circumstances, it is helpful to give people work that shows some immediate results.
Breaking a big goal down into smaller tasks can really help people feel in control when work is stressful and overwhelming. Doing this while a business is going through redundancies and immediately afterwards helps staff to feel that their workload is still manageable and they’re making valuable contributions. Celebrating the achievement of these goals is also key: regular successes also create a more positive atmosphere about the future of the company, boosting confidence.
Teams will be key to success
There is no doubt that many teams will have changed over this period, becoming increasingly virtual as well as restructuring. Helping every individual to understand their role, responsibilities and how your team fits with the company vision is, therefore, crucial.
Setting out where responsibility and ownership lies will help to accelerate past the potential decline in productivity and speed of decision making that often comes with survivor syndrome. Encouraging your team members to ask questions, express concerns and co-create solutions so they feel consulted, listened to and more in control of the future. This will also build trust in the restructured team.
Look after your wellbeing
You are not weak for struggling in this period; organisational restructures can have serious emotional, psychological and physical effects on employees who remain even in non-pandemic times. Fortunately, you do have the power to protect your wellbeing, even in the face of workplace stress.
With potentially diminished social support networks, elevated work-life balance conflicts and the challenge of managing fluctuating emotions, survivors of redundancies face a number of threats to their wellbeing. Focusing on your mind, body and environment, however, will put you in the best position to handle the pressure. Try to ensure that you:
- Accept your emotions
- Stay present
- Live your values
- Get active
- Fuel up
- Restore your energy
- Seek out clarity
- Connect for support
- Follow your purpose
You can learn more about these nine tips for maintaining your wellbeing during coronavirus in this infographic.
Survivor syndrome after redundancies poses a number of risks to businesses, but by being aware of the warning signs and acting fast to mitigate issues, leaders can avoid the worst effects. Ultimately, the best way to stop your people suffering after a restructure is to support them and their wellbeing. Keeping one’s job is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean survivors can be ignored. After all, they are the people who are going to get your business back to where you want it to be.
Want to learn more about employee wellbeing?
Lane4 designs and implements inspirational employee wellbeing programmes, as well as providing digital tools to help organisations carry out their own wellbeing initiatives.
Balance4 is a personalised, on-demand learning tool to help your people understand and improve their own wellbeing. It includes a diagnostic and nine interactive, bite-sized e-learning modules to develop skills and improve wellbeing. Learn more here.
You can also read our latest research in our white paper Wellbeing: Thriving in all aspects of working life.
 Wolfe, Helen. Survivor Syndrome: Key Considerations and Practical Steps. Retrieved from: https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/system/files/resources/files/mp28.pdf