Workplace Survivor Syndrome: What It Is and How to Cope

CoachHub · 31 August 2022 · 5 min read

Workplaces nationwide continue to undergo massive changes. Just when many were ready to breathe a sigh of relief as pandemic-related layoffs seemed to wane, a new wave of job losses is occurring due to market shifts, particularly in tech and finance. Many organizations are now operating with limited resources and employees who are left to shoulder outsized work loads while managing a mix of emotions. Remaining in the workforce while colleagues have lost their jobs can bring on a sense of relief, shame, guilt, anxiety and even anger. This experience can be overwhelming and rock an employee’s sense of stability.

There’s a phrase to describe it: workplace survivor’s syndrome. The experience isn’t just difficult for the individual — it can have a destabilizing impact on teams, threatening the unity needed to forge ahead. Workplace survivor’s syndrome can drain team morale while making individuals feel psychologically unsafe in the workplace. Here’s how you can help your team cope.

Workplace survivor syndrome definition

Workplace survivor syndrome is a term used to describe the psychological effects that can occur after a workplace layoff or downsizing. Symptoms can include anxiety, depression, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating. Survivor syndrome can also lead to physical health problems such as headaches and stomachaches. workplace survivors often feel a sense of guilt or betrayal, as well as a loss of self-confidence. The syndrome can have a profound effect on both an individual’s work life and personal life. Workplace survivor syndrome is a very real phenomenon, and it is important to be aware of the symptoms so that you can seek help if necessary.

workplace survivor syndrome

Overcoming workplace survivor syndrome

If your staff have been affected by a layoff, it’s natural they’ll be feeling mixed emotions. After all, they’ve made it through something that many others have not. But while it’s normal to feel this way, it’s important to make sure that they don’t become overwhelmed by workplace survivor’s syndrome. Here are four ways to help them deal with this syndrome and move on, while feeling empathy for your colleagues who lost their jobs.

1. Acknowledge the team’s feelings

After a major round of layoffs, it’s likely your team will be feeling unsafe. Questions like, “Am I going to be able to pay my mortgage? Am I next? We are already lean, do I now have to take on double the work?” can be hard to suppress for employees who remain with your organization.

Before you can guide your team to acknowledge their feelings, you’ll have to do so yourself. It’s normal to feel guilty, anxious, and even scared after a round of layoffs, even if your job was spared. These are all perfectly valid emotions and it’s important to allow yourself to feel them. Trying to bottle them up will only make things worse in the long run. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about your feelings with anyone in your life, try journaling or meditating as a way to explore the complexities of your inner world.

After you’ve started to explore your feelings about the layoffs, talk to your team about the process — what worked for you, what didn’t, and what you’re learning. Encourage them to be open about the feelings they are experiencing.  It’s okay to talk about the layoffs and how they’ve affected everyone. Encourage your team to stay connected. Whether it’s through regular team meetings or simply checking in with each other, make sure there are opportunities for employees to share how they’re feeling.

2. Find purpose

The very people that you are counting on pulling you through these tough times are probably the least engaged and committed to your success… their friends just lost their jobs. Helping your team and each individual contributor refocus on a new purpose is important in finding a way forward.

While you might be tempted to push your productivity into overdrive as a result of an increased workload or fear of future layoffs, resist the urge. Instead, refocus on finding purpose in your work so you can help your team do the same. Take the time to adjust to the ways your role and workplace culture have changed. Losing coworkers you loved, or dropping tasks or projects you enjoyed, can be overwhelming. Pause and allow yourself the time to adjust to your new work environment.

After a round of layoffs, it’s common for employees to feel like their job doesn’t matter as much. Remind your team of the company’s mission and how their work contributes to it.

3. Create opportunities for professional development

Employees who feel like they’re stuck in a rut are more likely to experience survivor’s syndrome. Help your team members set goals and develop a plan for reaching them. This can be done through training and development programs, as well as by encouraging them to take on new challenges. This could involve giving them assignments that are outside of their comfort zone, or providing opportunities to work on new projects. By taking on new challenges, employees will have the chance to develop new skills and knowledge, which can help them advance in their careers. If you want to help your team members grow in their careers, it is important to provide opportunities for them to learn and develop new skills.

This could also come in the form of digital coaching. Coaching provides the opportunity for personalized, one-on-one discussion to help your employees overcome roadblocks and develop the soft skills needed to thrive amidst uncertainty.

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Bottom line

Leaders are the key to navigating survivor syndrome in your workplace. They will determine your success. Their ability to provide open real dialogue, to inspire trust, to help shape and create a vision and, finally, their ability to engage their team members and colleagues to overcome the fear and uncertainty they may be feeling are the strengths you must rely on to move forward.

It’s important to remember that the feelings of survivor syndrome are natural and common. It’s also important to provide open communication and pathways for career growth in order to help employees feel supported and engaged in their new work environment. By providing a sense of community and opportunity for growth, your team can start to feel more positive about their future at the company. Have you experienced layoffs recently? How did your company support you during this time?

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