Survivor syndrome: Dealing with employee anxiety after mass layoffs

Canada is being rocked by redundancies – but what about those people left behind?

Survivor syndrome: Dealing with employee anxiety after mass layoffs

With yet more layoffs sweeping across the Canadian tech market, HR leaders are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Data released this month from iSolved found that half of HR leaders are feeling the effects of the volatile economy, with 53% having reduced their workforce in 2022 or planning to in 2023.

Just last week, Accenture announced its plans to lay off 19,000 employees, adding to the ranks of Google, Meta and Twitter – each having declared redundancies of their own.

Layoffs can have an impact on not only HR leaders’ morale, but they can add fuel to the fire when it comes to employee anxieties. Survivor syndrome is a real and present danger for those left behind, with increased uncertainty compounding mental health concerns. Research conducted by The Myers-Briggs Company shed light on the toxic capabilities of survivor syndrome, finding that one-third of respondents were affected, to some extent, by the condition.

But how do you spot survivor syndrome and, more importantly, eradicate it before it eats away at your culture?

Speaking to HRD, Ed Beltran, CEO of training company Fierce Inc, he explains that while the signs of survivor syndrome are pretty clear, you still really need to know exactly what to look out for.

“The previous culture, pre-layoffs, assuming it was a positive one to begin with, starts to stall and dissipate, engagement is lower, or the same level of energy and excitement that had been present before is no longer there,” he says. “In many sectors, work cultures devolve into mistrust and a cut-throat environment for those who are left. Productivity can really start to take a hit, as we often see changes in the quality of the work and direct effects on the level of collaboration amongst the remaining employees.

The individual signs of stress are vast and wide-ranging, but aren’t always obvious, meaning it takes extra effort on the part of leadership to keep these in view, he said, citing insights from their Chief Behavior Science Officer, such as important tasks being forgotten, changes in physical appearance, a previously unseen level of disorganization, change in customary personality traits, a member of the team who was usually jovial is now more guarded, or usually quiet employee becomes more jumpy and trying harder to be seen and heard.

"These are all signs that the layoffs are having an impact.”

Overcommunicate during uncertainty

As always, HR leaders are often the bearer of the bad news when it comes to any redundancies and terminations. And while it’s essential that HR practitioners perfect the art of the awkward conversation, it’s still uncomfortable. The key to keeping a handle on survivor syndrome is simple – overcommunicate.

“When you think you have communicated, do it again, repeat your key messages to your team to keep them looped in as much as is reasonably possible,” says Beltran. “For things that employers are uncertain about, they should be honest and transparent, first and foremost; for example: ‘We believe these are the only rounds of layoffs, however, we are not 100% sure.’

“It’s important that employers leverage training and other tools that can support self-awareness and emotional intelligence in the workplace. Simply relying on change management and employee assistance programs won’t cut it.”

As for EAPs, data often shows low rates of use by employees, he said.

“Self-awareness and emotional intelligence are absolutely critical for those that are left behind. Emotional intelligence teaches that it is important to let the feeling pass in order to get to the logical side of understanding the situation and the reasons for what they’re feeling.”

Practice self-awareness in leadership

One of the biggest errors leaders can make is assuming that everyone’s on the same page. Unless there’s a clear and continuous stream of information detailing any impending changes, employees will understandably be confused. But it’s not all about talking – in order to facilitate these conversations, leaders need to practice self-awareness. Speaking to Beltran, he says that HR leaders need to hone their emotional intelligence when it comes to mass layoffs.

“Being self-aware of specific stressors, the biological response to those stressors, precisely what is stressing them out, is essential in being able to address and manage the stress in the first place,” adds Beltran. “For example, in many situations, extreme stress and uncertainty will cause employees to harbor negative feelings that could cause them to be fearful of even asking questions, or ‘rocking the boat’ as it may be seen by some in the workplace.”

“For critical personnel, there are things employers can do to very explicitly show their value to the organization, such as creating retention bonuses or other benefits that point to the fact that the employee is critical to the overall success of the organization.”

The impact mass terminations have on those left behind shouldn’t be minimized – it affects everything from morale to inspiration. Data from Leadership IQ found that 74% of employees who were kept on after mass layoffs experienced a decrease in productivity – with 64% adding that the quality of  the company’s overall mission and service also diminished. So how you go about this process will be reflected in how your company dare hereafter.

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