Coping with Survivor Syndrome

“Survivor guilt” is a phrase that usually describes the anxiety and guilt felt by the survivors of traumatic incidences like plane crashes. In the workplace, it has come to describe the insecurities and sense of betrayal felt by the escapees of the redundancy round. Such feelings can cause an increase in absence and team conflict, as well as a decrease in productivity and good customer service.

Although it is easy to think of those made redundant as the only ones suffering, while the survivors are lucky to have their jobs, the future of the organisation will rest on the survivors. So what can be done to ensure the welfare of those left behind?

1. Clearly communicate the reasons for downsizing.
Explain to employees how the downsizing will work in the long-term to secure the organisation’s future. Then explain the process by which employees will be chosen to leave. This will help them understand that there is a strategy involved rather than believe that it is simply a knee-jerk reaction. The clarity and speed with which this is done will reduce the overall anxiety of employees.

2. Continue communication after downsizing.
Restructuring the jobs and responsibilities of survivors will be an ongoing process, so it is important to maintain clear communication throughout. Surveys provide useful information about employees’ opinions, which help identify when communications aren’t aligned with the expectations of staff.

3. Offer employees training in soft skills.
Supervisors and managers should be aware that emotional responses from staff are not necessarily personal attacks. Training in soft skills like listening and understanding body language will help managers to engage with their teams openly.

4. Offer counseling services.
Different survivors will respond in different ways, so managers should look for those who may be very distressed by the redundancies and need extra support. Managers should also be able to refer employees to counseling services or Employee Assistance Programmes, and explain what help can be given and how these services are confidential. All of this will increase an employee’s confidence in the organisation.

5. Involve survivors in the organisation.
Survivors should be involved in building the future success of the organisation by being allowed to give their opinion on how work can be done with fewer staff and which meaningless tasks could be dropped. Investing in the careers of survivors through skill development and job enrichment programmes will demonstrate that there is a future for the survivors in the organisation. Furthermore, managers should be visible and approachable for staff, as well as being honest about the future with employees so that trust is rebuilt.

6. Control conflict.
In times of tension, such as throughout a redundancy period, conflicts between employees are more likely to arise. Managers should be trained in conflict resolution to resolve this, and workplace mediation services should be made available.

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