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How to combat survivor syndrome at work

10 Jul 2020 By David Clutterbuck

HR must enlist the help of mentors and ensure former staff aren’t forgotten to tackle feelings of guilt among remaining employees, says David Clutterbuck

As businesses slowly reopen after lockdown, some semblance of working life will return. But the empty workstations will not be there solely to accommodate social distancing. Every employer has tough choices to make, which will mean some employees no longer have jobs to return to. 

These employees will be missed, but they will be gradually forgotten as the impetus gains ground to move from survival to revival (and even to ‘thrival’). But the scars of what has come to be called ‘survivor syndrome’ will remain. Previous crises have taught us that in focusing on economic recovery, it is easy to forget about emotional and mental recovery – but we must not overlook survivor syndrome. The symptoms fall into four categories:

  • Sadness, depression and guilt towards those unlucky enough to lose their jobs;
  • Fear, insecurity and uncertainty, arising from the concern that it might be me next;
  • Frustration, anger and resentment about the unfairness;
  • A sense of injustice and betrayal at the perceived breaking of the psychological contract.

Not surprisingly, employees feeling these emotions will be likely to have lower motivation, and a compromised sense of purpose and commitment to their job role and organisation. This may not be apparent; they may attempt to avoid being noticed, as these are dangerous times to show your true feelings.

So what can employers do to address this issue while there is still time to plan? Here are some guidelines:

Talk openly about survivor syndrome and its symptoms 

It often does not occur to ordinary employees that the people who have made the tough decisions also feel pain. Yet if leaders can be honest – both to themselves and others – about their feelings, it helps to create a sense of shared compassion that will both enhance leader credibility and encourage everyone to be more open.

Address the issue of fairness head on 

Be transparent about how the decisions were made to select some people for redundancy and not others. If sacrifices have to be made, ensure they are spread as equally as possible. Now is not the time to refurbish the executive suite or replace the CEO’s upmarket car.

Enlist the help of all your coaches and mentors

While they are not there to provide therapy for people with serious depression, they have a major role in helping staff work through their emotions and focus on the future. Some of the powerful questions they can explore are:

  • What is your responsibility for supporting others through this difficult period?
  • How can you help to make this a happy place to work once more?
  • What do your customers and other stakeholders need from you now?
  • What resources can you draw on to speed recovery for yourself and your team?
  • How can you forgive yourself and others for what has happened?
  • What small achievements can you focus on right now that will be the first steps to recovery?
  • How can you put the energy now going into anger and resentment into much more positive use?
  • What personal growth opportunities are opening up for you now?

Don’t forget former colleagues

Nobody likes being fired. But a couple who divorce, for example, have a choice about whether to remain friends. The same applies to the employees you let go. You can leave them angry and resentful, or as ambassadors for the company and potential future employees when times change. Keep in touch with them, both through HR and through their former colleagues. Be generous – for example, extend staff discounts for a couple of years after they leave. Invite them back into the company for an annual reunion. Keep them informed about new job vacancies as they arise. Think of them not as former employees but as people on long-term loan elsewhere.

This is not just about being a good corporate citizen. It is also a powerful sign to existing employees that the company genuinely cares. As with so many aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, change can be both positive or negative, depending on how you approach it. Survivor syndrome is a radical opportunity to emerge with greatly enhanced employee engagement – or deep disengagement, if we drop the ball.

Professor David Clutterbuck is an author, consultant and special ambassador to the European Mentoring and Coaching Council

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