How to deal with survivor syndrome at work?

  • Thursday, August 17, 2023
  • Posted By GM Leadership Hive

Guest Blog: [Paul Hamlin, Business Advisor at GC Business Growth Hub]

Thinking of downsizing? Before you do, consider reading this blog. 

When there is a need for headcount reduction, those leaving an organisation are usually considered the ‘unlucky ones’. However, we need to consider the impact on the ‘survivors’. The reality of downsizing is likely to ignite a greater sense of insecurity and fear amongst the team which are remaining. 

What is Workplace Survivor Syndrome? 

According to the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross change curve, which describes your employees’ emotions during the process, there are 3 phases for them to go through. 


Shock & Denial

When it happens, this is almost a default position. They will feel shocked and fear the unknown, especially considering workload distribution going forward.  Another potential reaction might be the opposite; they will default to the status quo, hide their feelings, and continue as if everything is normal in the world of work. 


Anger & Depression

There will be skepticism and frustration with your decisions. They will be suspicious of your motives, analysing who left and forming opinions on who they thought should have stayed. Some may feel guilty that they are still employed whilst others have left. They can lose faith in the decision-makers and become disconnected from their role. 


Acceptance & Integration

As exciting new opportunities arose, they were relieved as they were not chosen to leave and still had a role to play. They have hope for a better future and trust their leaders can take them forward.  

Understanding the above and knowing your team can help them to navigate these phases as quickly and smoothly as practical.

Some impacts of ‘Workplace Survivor Syndrome’ include: 

Communicate and ensure everything is transparent and makes sense. The lack of communication and adequate preparation for the layoffs causes survivors to view the entire process with suspicion.

This will be more prevalent in the current economic climate and you cannot make promises for the future. You can, however, ensure existing teams are actively involved in shaping it.

This is not your idea of how it looks. It is the survivor’s view and whether they believe the correct process has been followed, especially with empathy.

As employees watch and wait for the impact, they wonder if they will be next to go. They will also worry about what will be asked of them, which could be beyond their responsibilities, ultimately overstretching existing teams.

Survivors might be afraid to take advantage of opportunities for fear of exposure to criticism or failure, making them the next target for redundancy. Performers may see career paths blocked due to organisational restructuring.

Survivors lose the sense of belonging and question whether they should care about their employer’s fortunes. It can manifest in a lack of commitment and eventually lead to employee turnover.

In summary, you should think carefully about what you want and need to do. Then consider the broader implications and the actual costs of downsizing.

Dealing with ‘Workplace Survivor Syndrome’ effectively and efficiently will help you create a new foundation with your people that improves competitiveness and keeps your employees' interests at heart.  

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