Careers advice

How do you cope with layoff survivor syndrome?

Finding it hard to cope with a restructure, even though your job survived? You’re not alone.

Company restructures aren’t easy on anyone, and even if your job survives, you’ll likely feel demoralised by the process.

Trust us, you aren’t alone. In fact, there’s even a term for the complex range of emotions staff can feel in the aftermath of a company restructure – survivor syndrome.

This can also be referred to as ‘survivor’s guilt’, and it’s important you know how to recognise it in yourself, and develop some tactics for coping.

How does survivor's guilt work?

The term ‘survivor’s guilt’ doesn’t just refer to job losses. More commonly, it’s used for the guilt people feel when they survive a traumatic event, such as a plane crash, when others don’t.

In such situations, as with redundancies, the people left behind often ask themselves why they were spared when others weren’t.

When it comes to restructure related survivor’s guilt, there are a few common signs and symptoms you might notice in yourself:

  1. Stress – restructures become a whole lot more real when people have actually gone, and you may find yourself worrying that your job will be next. If you’ve taken on an increased workload due to the departures, this can also raise your stress levels.
  2. Anger – even if your company leaders tried as hard as they could to make the restructure process bearable, these situations can create an “us and them” mentality between employees and leaders. You may find yourself feeling angry, especially if close friends lost jobs.
  3. Reduced productivity – both of these factors, combined with continued uncertainty, can mean you produce less work, or at a lower standard than usual.

Survivor syndrome can show itself in a number of ways.

How do you cope with layoff survivor syndrome?

1. Realise this is normal

Go easy on yourself. The last thing you need to do at a time of heightened emotion is to start blaming yourself for feeling this way. These emotions are perfectly normal and common among restructure survivors.

Allow yourself time to be sad about losing friends and colleagues, and to process what’s happened. Bottling up feelings and pretending you’re all good will be unhealthy in the long run.

2. Talk to people

As part of this processing phase, be sure to lean on your support networks when needed. This could be family, friends, your manager (if you have a good relationship with them) or professionals such as counsellors.

Your mental health is the absolute priority.

3. Avoid burnout

When it comes to getting work done, there are a few things you can do to avoid burnout due to an increased workload:

  • Manage expectations: learn to say “no” if you can’t take on another task right now. If you’re constantly being flooded with requests from different stakeholders, talk to your manager about how they can help you manage others’ expectations.
  • Prioritise: linked to this is careful prioritisation of your work, to ensure you complete the absolutely critical tasks on time. If you’re unsure how to best prioritise, again ask your manager for help.
  • Maintain a work-life balance: a restructure shouldn’t spell late nights in the office, taking calls on the weekend or giving up hobbies you love. If your work-life balance is suffering, it’s time to have a chat with your manager.
  • Exercise and sleep well: staying healthy and getting enough Zs are closely linked to positive mental health, and can help you cope with the negative emotions.

Your manager should be able to help if you're struggling with an increased workload.

4. Stay in touch with displaced colleagues

Different people will process redundancy differently, and some may not want to talk much immediately after losing their job. However, as we’ll discuss later on, staying in touch with displaced colleagues can help you both move forward.

5. Take time off if you need

A day or two to catch your breath after an emotionally draining experience like a restructure can give you distance between yourself and work. This can help you reflect on what’s happened and how to approach returning to your responsibilities.

What to say when someone lost their job?

One of the trickiest parts of dealing with survivor guilt is knowing what to say to colleagues who did lose their jobs. You want to be there for them, but realise they’ll be feeling a whole host of different emotions to you.

Here’s our advice:

1. Saying something is better than nothing

Imagine losing your job. Now imagine losing your job and having no messages of support from your former teammates. If you send them a message or email and they don’t feel like responding right away, they don’t have to – but at least they know you’re there.

2. Listen more than you talk

Simply checking in is what’s needed – “how are you doing?” goes a long way. Most importantly, questions like this give them a chance to get their feelings off their chest. Let them vent – this is probably what they need most right now.

We’d also recommend avoiding any of the following:

1. “At least now you can get some well-earned rest”: there’s nothing restful about being made redundant, and this wasn’t on their terms.

2. “I know of a job going in (insert unrelated industry here)”: this might be more appropriate further down the line, but your former colleague is likely to want to do their own job hunting, aligned to their interests, first.

3. “You never know, this could be a springboard to something better”: this perspective may come with time, but almost certainly won’t be what they’re thinking right now.

3. Let them know you’re here to help

Didn’t we just say not to do this? No, offering your support is fine – but let them come to you on their terms. Remember, they’ll still be processing what’s happened, and different people will move at different paces.

A simple offer such as, “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help with a future job search”, will usually do the trick.