Navigating Changing Terrains: Layoffs, Workplace Survival Syndrome, and Mental Health

7 minute read

People’s leaders are on the front lines in times of uncertainty

Over the past two-plus years, human resources departments have dealt with security issues related to the pandemic, layoffs, fluctuations in the economy, difficulties in filling positions and the transition of employees to the online work.

Following the recent interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve, intended to fight inflation and slow economic growth, companies in several sectors are implementing hiring freezes, restructurings and again layoffs.

In times of economic uncertainty, people leaders are tasked with being the emotional buffers of organizations and businesses. This can have particularly heavy consequences for people in HR who are very empathetic and sensitive.

Here’s how to navigate this shifting terrain while carrying out layoffs with empathy and respect, and also protecting your own sanity.

How Layoffs Affect People Leaders

As some companies head for another round of layoffs, it’s no surprise that many People executives are struggling.

A recent study show that 98% of HR managers are burnt out, 94% felt overwhelmed in the past six months, and 88% said they dread going to work.

A 22-year HR veteran Remarks that empathy is the number one skill of people leaders. HR is no longer just about hiring, firing and disciplining, but also about “really supporting and interacting with employees as ‘full human beings’.”

Using empathy and engaging holistically with employees is a great way to create work environments where mental health and wellbeing are a top priority.

How Layoffs Affect Employees

There is often a visceral emotional shock as workers process the news that they no longer have a job, along with anger, crying, denial, confusion, fear for the future and the sadness of leaving.

It is not possible to completely eliminate these difficult emotions, but it is possible to show thoughtfulness, empathy and kindness when dismissing people. There’s a big difference between treating laid-off employees humanely and treating them like a replaceable, obsolete resource.

Lead dismissals with empathy and respect

We’ve all heard of companies making layoffs by inviting those employees to a mass meeting to spread this life-changing news, and when the call is over, their access to email and company resources. business was cut.

They have no transition resources or the ability to deal with their manager, and no way to contact HR to determine how to file an unemployment claim. They have no closure and little to no access to tracking information or the ability to ask questions.

In short, it is a dehumanizing process.

The respectful and empathetic approach to termination begins with a face-to-face conversation with the employee manager or someone from HR, who gently breaks the news and acknowledges that being terminated is an extremely difficult and painful situation. The employee has the space to process their feelings, ask questions, and feel heard.

They are also:

  • Given all the information they need to file for unemployment
  • Provided information about their last paycheck
  • Told when their benefits will end
  • Provided HR contact details for any follow-up questions

Remember that the manner in which layoffs are carried out will be discussed by both the person who is terminated and the remaining employees. Layoffs are part of a company’s permanent reputation.

For employees who stay with a company after layoffs, workplace survivor syndrome is something that people leaders need to watch out for and address.

What is Workplace Survivor Syndrome?

It is completely normal for the remaining employees to struggle with strong emotions after their co-workers are fired.

Workplace survivor syndrome is an array of emotional reactions to layoffs that can strongly affect employees who remain with a company. These may include:

  • Sorrow of losing colleagues
  • Anxiety about job security
  • Guilt for still having a job when their former colleagues did not
  • Anger that co-workers-turned-friends lost their jobs
  • Overwork stress due to fewer employees and more on their plate

If left untreated, Work Survival Syndrome can lead to increased employee burnout, stress, insecurity, lower morale, and loss of trust and commitment.

There are ways to boost engagement and support remaining employees to lessen the aftermath of layoffs.

It is also important to note that people leaders are not exempt from the survivor syndrome and have the added complication of helping employees cope while dealing with it themselves.

Supporting employee mental health after layoffs

Layoffs are hard on everyone. After that, the most important part moving forward is open, clear, and ongoing communication. Communication is key amid the uncertainty and fear that remaining employees are sure to feel.

Clearly communicate the direction of the business to the remaining employees, so they understand there is a cohesive plan for moving forward. It is detrimental to allow rumors and fear-based speculation to spread about the company’s future plans.

Remaining employees will also have questions about changing roles, reporting structures and additional responsibilities after the layoffs. So be sure to:

  • Have a detailed plan of how teams and assignments will be restructured after layoffs and communicate with employees about how their responsibilities will change
  • Create a two-way dialogue with employees, especially if they take on more responsibility.
  • Check in on remaining employees regularly to see how they’re handling layoffs and new responsibilities, and let them know how appreciated they are.
  • Give employees a space to talk about the survivor syndrome feelings they are experiencing
  • Provide a mental health benefit so employees have the opportunity to process their feelings with a therapist or coach

A supportive environment is part of the post-layoff equation that drives a business forward in a healthy way. At the same time, it is also important to simultaneously reforge relationship bonds and focus on re-engaging the remaining employees.

Reset attention, foster communication and center relationships

While employees process their feelings about layoffs, which takes time, it’s also helpful to create a sense of movement and new growth by:

  • Stimulate the creativity of the remaining employees. Give teams and individuals the go-ahead to finally work on the passion project that’s been on the back burner, or focus on original solutions to existing problems.
  • Emphasize teamwork and create open lines of communication. Bring people together and create a safe space to talk about how they are adjusting to the new reality of work and their future needs.
  • Accept a slower pace. Employees adapt to a different workload while dealing with the grief of losing colleagues. Instead of putting more work on their plates, pause non-urgent projects.

Prioritize your own personal care

Last, but not least, it is essential that people leaders make self-care a priority and are aware of their own feelings after making layoffs.

They are likely coping with their own grief over losing friends and co-workers while enduring the negative emotions associated with the layoffs and supporting the remaining employees.

It’s a lot to manage. To effectively support your employees, you must first feel mentally healthy.

How Spring Health Supports Employees During Transition Times

After layoffs, there is a period of transition and processing that occurs on an individual and team level, as the remaining employees sift through the emotions of seeing their colleagues and friends laid off.

These emotions can fester, leading to lower engagement and higher rates of burnout and attrition if employees have no way to manage them.

Two recently published studies prove that Spring Health brings clinical improvements to employees and a positive financial return on investment for your company.

With Spring Health, employees:

  • Are 60% less likely to quit their job
  • Reliably (70%) improved their mental health
  • Have 25% fewer missed workdays
  • Have a 24% increase in productivity

Layoffs are hard on everyone. They are also part of adapting to changing economic conditions and the grim reality of business.

But it’s still possible to treat terminated employees with humanity and respect while supporting the mental health of the remaining employees in the future.

Then read this blog to find out how HR leaders can turn burnout into sustained enthusiasm.

Jesse Maynard
Jesse Maynard

Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed her graduate studies in Women’s Studies and works at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. She runs support groups for children and teens and regularly meets with children who need extra support. Jess follows her curiosity with devotion and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

August 15, 2022