Survivor guilt: How to deal with company layoffs

Some ‘feel bad’ that they got to keep their jobs — one psychologist shares how to manage the odd feeling

Survivor guilt: How to deal with company layoffs

You survived lockdown. Youve still got a job. So why dont you feel good? It may be because you’re feeling survivor guilt.

Survivor guilt, or survivor syndrome, was first noticed in people who had survived traumatic events such as a plane crash or natural disaster, where they lived but others didn’t.

Survivors often feel guilty about still being alive or think that they did not do enough to help others, and so are in some way responsible for their deaths.

Similar — though less intense — guilt is also often seen in the workplace when workers are made redundant or laid off, with those who remain behind feeling guilty that they still have a job when others have lost theirs.

Often, the survivor may see those who have left as more skilled or more worthy than they are, which adds to the guilty feeling. This is one of the reasons why employees who remain after a downsizing exercise often experience a reduction in performance.

READ MORE: The success of a layoff depends on the surviving staff

In the current climate, survivor guilt has a negative impact on many people. Large numbers of workers have been laid off, with data from the US Bureau of Labor statistics showing that the unemployment rate has tripled since last year.

Those who remain behind are often asked to carry out additional work, sometimes accompanied by phrases like,you should feel grateful to still have a job”.

My team wondered whether survivors would feel guilty or annoyed that they remained at work, and how these feelings related to their personality. We carried out research to find out more and the results are fascinating.

The impact of survivor guilt
Since April, we have collected data on reactions to the COVID-19 crisis from people who already knew their personality type. Two of the questions we asked were:

  • I am annoyed or angry that I am still working, when others have been laid off or furloughed.
  • I feel guilty about having a job, when others have been laid off or furloughed.

Only 5% of the sample agreed or strongly agreed with the first statement, but 33% agreed or strongly agreed with the second. It seems that people are much more likely to feel guilty than annoyed.

A third of the group were affected, to some extent, by survivor syndrome. There were also two additional findings about survivor guilt.

First, it increases over time — people who completed the survey back in April were significantly less likely to agree with the statement than people who completed it in late July.

Second, there was a clear difference in terms of personality, as assessed by the ‘thinking-feeling’ dimension of the MBTI model.

READ MORE: How can HR help 'worried workers'?

How personality affects survivor guilt
People with a ‘thinking’ preference prefer to make decisions based on objective logic, whereas those with a ‘feeling’ preference prefer to make decisions based on values and on how those decisions will affect people.

We found that respondents with a ‘feeling’ personality preference were significantly more likely to experience guilt than those with a ‘thinking’ preference.

Additionally, 44% of those with a ‘feeling’ preference agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, but only 21% of those with a ‘thinking’ preference agreed or strongly agreed.

This personality difference is important for several reasons. For example, managers and executives are much more likely to have a ‘thinking’ than a ‘feeling’ personality preference and may therefore be less prone to survivor guilt.

The survey results were a wake-up call for me personally — respondents with my personality type (INTP) were least likely to experience survivor guilt and therefore may be least likely to notice it in others.

READ MORE: How to manage retrenchments with dignity

How managers can deal with survivor guilt in their teams
What then should managers do, especially for those less likely to feel survivor guilt?

  • First, let those still in the organisation know that the ones who were laid off were treated as well as possible and as individuals.
  • It is also critical that you actually treat laid off employees this way. People have a knack for smelling out inauthenticity. If you lie, it will be worse than saying nothing at all.
  • Reassure people that even if they had been prepared to make sacrifices, it would not have changed the outcome.
  • Finally, try not to congratulate people on still having a job. This may just add to any guilty feelings.

READ MORE: You're afraid you’ll get laid off – here's how to prepare

Understand the ‘psychological contract’ with employees
In all of this, it is important to consider the psychological contract that an organisation has with its employees.

Everyone has a regular contract, dealing with things like salary and working conditions, but there is also a psychological contract — the intangible agreement on values and the way we do things around here” that is held implicitly between an employee and their employer.

In making any decision around layoffs, think about how you might be violating this contract, and explain to staff why you have to do it. Some individuals might walk away from their jobs and the organisation without explanation or warning if they think their values have been compromised.

None of this is easy, and in the current situation where people are working remotely, it will be made more difficult without the ability to communicate face to face.

Make use of all the channels you have to communicate. Even though conversations may be difficult, you must have them — dont just rely on terse emails. Use video when staff are willing to do so.

Survivor guilt does not take place in a vacuum. It affects many aspects of how an individual feels and how well they carry out their job.

From research, we found that those experiencing survivor guilt were also more likely to feel worried about their co-workers and be more anxious in general, and that they were finding it more difficult to concentrate and remain focused.

At a time when organisations need everyone to pull together, it is important to take survivor guilt seriously.


About the author
John Hackston, head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, is a chartered psychologist with more than 30 years’ experience in helping clients to use psychometric tests and questionnaires in a wide range of context.

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