When companies have to lay off significant numbers of employees—as we’ve seen in recent months around the world —an outpouring of sympathy understandably gets directed toward affected employees, and even the managers and HR leaders who have to deliver the awful news.
But one group often gets overlooked during the process: those employees who remain. While their emotions likely don’t compare to those losing their jobs, experts say HR leaders shouldn’t overlook what those employees might feel in the wake of such a traumatic event in the workplace. A study by LeadershipIQ, a research and training leadership company, noted that the three most common emotions experienced by employees who remained after layoffs were anger, anxiety, and guilt (often referred to as “workplace survivor syndrome”). In addition, 74% of those employees said their own productivity declined after the layoffs.
Despite the sobering statistics, the aftermath of layoffs presents an important opportunity for companies and HR leaders to restore faith among employees not only upset by the departure of valued colleagues, but likely fearing they could be next.
How do layoffs affect employees who remain?
Many employees who remain after a significant layoff will likely feel a mix of emotions, both positive and negative. It’s important for HR leaders to understand those emotions in the aftermath of layoffs, so they can support employees using a mix of communication and specific initiatives to boost morale (more on that in a minute). Employees retained after a layoff may feel a combination of the following:
For employees who survive layoffs, many will likely feel a sense of relief in the immediate aftermath, a natural response.
Feelings of relief often give way to feelings of guilt as employees struggle to feel good about themselves when valued colleagues now face an uncertain future. Nearly one-third of employees in a recent study reported feelings of guilt at surviving layoffs. Experts view workplace survivor syndrome as a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, underlining the depth and severity of these emotions.
Anxiety for retained employees could have several roots. Despite surviving the last round of layoffs, retained employees likely worry that more could be on horizon, and they might not fare as well should they happen. In addition, employees might also feel stress at the thought of the additional work they now face as a result of reduced resources. Finally, layoffs can shatter social circles formed at work, leaving remaining employees with a feeling of increased isolation.
As employees cycle through these mixed emotions following a layoff, some may feel anger at their employer, perhaps because they feel their colleagues should also have been spared. Experts also say employees might feel angry at employers for breaking an implied contract. In other words, over time, employees often begin to identify with their jobs and their employers, feeling a mutual bond as a result of their equally beneficial relationship. In some ways, layoffs can be seen as a betrayal of that contract.
The combination of these emotions can have noticeable ramifications within an organization, so HR leaders should pay careful attention to the following signs of workplace survivor syndrome:
When close colleagues depart after a layoff, employees may feel a combination of grief and resentment that, when combined with anxiety about their own job security, leads employees to feel disconnected with their jobs. Lower morale can manifest in missed deadlines and higher mistakes at work. In the LeadershipIQ study, 77% of employees reported increased mistakes among co-workers after major layoffs.
Lack of engagement
Employees who feel a degree of anger after layoffs may also become disengaged from their work. How do you spot a disengaged employee? For starters, they may resist changes in roles, responsibilities, or structure that occur after layoffs. More likely, a disengaged employee simply doesn’t care and may be slow to adapt to any changes. Disengaged employees can often become more pessimistic in their outlook, and may have an inclination to complain about problems rather than look for solutions.
As we noted above, employees who remain following layoffs report lower productivity. Identifying drops in productivity, however, isn’t necessarily simple, because the signs are often subtle. It often comes down to managers looking for changes in certain employee behavior that productive employees often display. For example, a drop in productivity often leads to a loss of creativity. In addition, detail-oriented employees known for staying on top of projects might become procrastinators. They might also offer more excuses than they had in the past.
Studies show that stress from surviving a downsizing can lead to physical illness for employees who remain. Illnesses inevitably lead to spikes in personal time off. Companies should monitor absenteeism following a layoff to determine whether the reorganization could be adversely impacting employees. In the worst cases, according to the study above, workplace survivor syndrome can result in increases in more serious cardiovascular issues.
How to support employees who remain after layoffs
There’s good news for HR leaders who have to manage employees who remain after difficult layoffs: the way a company communicates can make a huge difference in the way those employees respond. The LeadershipIQ survey noted that employees who gave their managers high scores for visibility, approachability, and candor were 72% less likely to report a decrease in their productivity. The following tips can help HR leaders re-establish connections and rebuild loyalty with employees who feel a mix of emotions after layoffs:
Build a thorough communication plan
Obviously, communication with the remaining workforce after layoffs makes a huge difference in how they feel. So how do companies make sure they’re doing it the right way? For starters, communication starts by building a detailed, transparent communication plan before any layoffs occur. Communication plans should consist of thorough explanations of why the layoffs occurred, how the company plans to move forward, and what steps will be taken to support remaining employees. Be sure to include clear instructions for who’s communicating what and when. Any good communication plan, however, starts with listening. Encourage employees to share their feelings and acknowledge them.
The first step in managing employees through layoffs actually occurs well before any layoffs do. That’s because how companies communicate during layoffs largely determines whether employees ultimately feel good about their organization and their future, or whether they lose faith. And how effectively companies communicate depends on how well leaders and managers have been trained for this particular scenario. More often, companies focus on training managers how to communicate with employees who’ve been let go, but not those who remain. By adding training modules on how to help remaining employees to existing training programs, managers can learn how to strike the right balance between acknowledging the reality of the situation while also offering encouragement.
Offer support services
Workplace survivor syndrome can produce strong feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and fear. Some employees may exhibit signs of PTSD, which can lead to depression and a decline in physical health. Employees need to consider layoffs as a significant trauma for the organization and respond with support services that include access to counselors and the establishment of peer groups where employees can share their feelings and experiences.
Identify top performers and communicate directly with them
Employees with the most education, training, and talent may actually be the most likely to become dissatisfied during layoffs and resign. Employers need to identify those employees prior to layoffs and work directly with managers to craft communication that addresses their potential emotions. Helping these employees understand the rationale for these changes, as well as the direct impact on their roles, will go a long way toward easing their minds. Most of all, make sure top performers feel valued and connected with the organization.
Feelings of isolation are common for employees who remain after layoffs. Established workflows get disrupted and processes change as a result of shifting responsibilities and the need for more efficiency. Rather than let employees establish new relationships and workflows on their own, employers should proactively encourage greater collaboration. Managers should consider building cross-departmental projects that help employees establish those new relationships. Companies should also consider offering more culture- and team-building opportunities, such as offsite get-togethers, either for work or for fun.
Revisit discussions about compensation and benefits
Employee retention is obviously critical in the wake of layoffs, so employers need to consider improving some of the retention tools they already use. Although layoffs often stem from financial challenges, employers should nonetheless consider the ROI of making adjustments in compensation, especially given that retained employees will likely take on more responsibility. In lieu of salary adjustments, employers should look at improvements to benefits packages. In recent years, broader benefits from employers have become a key weapon to attract and retain talent. Following layoffs, they can provide a terrific incentive for employees impacted by the layoffs. In particular, benefits such as women’s and family health coverage—from pre-pregnancy through maternity, parenting, and even menopause—have resonated with the workforce.
How Maven can help you support employees following layoffs
Maven Clinic, the leading digital family health solution, offers employers an important way to build employee engagement and loyalty by delivering comprehensive solutions that help employees start and raise families. Maven’s extensive provider network, personalized care advocates, and comprehensive library of content help employees navigate the many challenges of balancing work and family. To learn more about how Maven can help you attract and retain talent, schedule a demo today.
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