Career Grief After Layoffs

Are your employees experiencing career grief after surviving a round of layoffs? Here’s what that’s about and how you can help.

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Steps to help your employees cope with grief post-layoffs

Here's what you need to know:

  • Layoff survivors are likely to feel guilty that they are still around when people they care about aren’t
  • One recent study found that 74% of layoff survivors say their own productivity has dropped since layoffs at their company
  • To help your employees cope with career grief after a layoff, acknowledge their grief and be visible and communicative
  • Show compassion for laid-off workers through writing LinkedIn endorsements or leveraging your network to identify job openings
  • Focus on things you can control and the changes you can make that will improve your company's position
  • Eliminate wasteful meetings and be conscious of the bigger workload your employees may be taking due to downsizing
  • If you need to cut back on company activities, and need help deciding which to keep, remember to prioritize customer experience

In the wake of mass layoffs, both the employees who’ve been laid off and those who survived often experience grief and loss. Those who’ve been laid off have lost their source of income and possibly their self-identity. This can lead to feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration, anger, and anxiety, similar to the symptoms of PTSD. It may involve negative thinking and changes in emotional and physical reactions. Of course, most employers understand that it’s hard on employees to lose their jobs through layoffs.

What’s lesser known is how the employees who survived the layoffs may feel. Even they can experience a sense of grief, loss, and uncertainty. In those suffering more extensively, this may represent what’s known as career grief.

A study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology¹ found that layoff survivors experience poorer health than other workers, including symptoms of depression and eating changes. In addition to decreased physical and mental health, layoffs can diminish employee trust.

While the effects of layoffs may be inevitable, there are things employers can do to help employees process the grief and recover. Here we’ll explore several.

Symptoms of layoff survivor syndrome and career grief

Individuals who survive a layoff and get to keep their jobs may experience layoff survivor syndrome and career grief. While symptoms of these 2 conditions are similar, they’re not the same. 

Symptoms of layoff survivor syndrome include:

  • Anxiety, apprehension and job insecurity due to fears of being on the next list of layoffs.
  • Guilt over getting to keep their jobs while their work friends lost theirs.
  • Decreased productivity due to reduced motivation and morale.
  • Feeling overwhelmed with additional work.
  • Loss of trust in leadership and suspicion of more layoffs and changes in the organization.

Symptoms of career grief include:

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Difficulty making decisions related to career goals.
  • Unwillingness to take risks to further their career for fear that mistakes will lead to being fired.
  • Feeling angry, sad, or frustrated that career goals and advancements may not be forthcoming due to organizational changes.
  • Employees not believing they’re good enough or worthy of receiving promotions.

It’s important to understand that survivors of layoffs can have symptoms of both career grief and survivor syndrome. As an employer or manager, it’s your job to help them work through their grief.

The urge to jump ship

Fearing the possibility of future layoffs, employees may start updating resumes and conducting job searches in pursuit of companies that aren’t downsizing their workforces. It’s important to understand that this is a knee-jerk reaction based on fear and anxiety. Employees who feel like they need to jump ship before they too become casualties of a downsizing company should step back, take a deep breath and think about why they joined the company in the first place. Chances are, it wasn’t “just a job” at the time. Was it the flexible hours, the company’s reputation, the mission, or the core values? If those things still exist post-layoffs, it may be worth foregoing the job search and weathering the current changes.

How to navigate career grief and improve productivity

Employers, HR pros, and managers can all help employees overcome career grief, survivor’s guilt, and fear of job loss. These tips can help remaining staff rebuild confidence in themselves and the organization and not feel guilty doing so.

Be transparent and share your feelings

Start the process of being open and transparent right after the layoffs. You can do this by dedicating an entire staff meeting to a discussion about the layoffs and how you all feel. For remote workers, host virtual meetings. Allow your employees to ask you anything they want. Give answers that are honest and contain little to no corporate jargon. Ask if they’ve heard any layoff rumors, and if they have, address them immediately.

After that, carve out 10 minutes from each subsequent staff meeting for the same purpose. Let people know that you’re not afraid to talk about it and you’re there to lead them through the difficulties.

Remain patient as employees adjust to reconfigured roles

Realize and acknowledge that it’ll take staff time to process what has happened and adjust to their new, possibly more hectic, roles. Be available to answer questions about job changes and new job duties and to clarify tasks. Be prepared to step in and help without judgment if someone’s workflow lags as they strive toward previous productivity levels.

Conduct personal and group check-in meetings

Remember to walk around. If you work in an office building, get out of your office and travel around where your employees work. When you encounter employees who appear to be between tasks, don’t hesitate to ask how they are doing. This is how to foster open communication and regain employee trust.

With staff who work remotely, you can accomplish the same goals through additional calls and emails. Send “check-in” emails every now and then to individual staffers. It’s easy for them to gloss over an all-staff email. But if you message employees individually, they’re more likely to appreciate the attention. You can also schedule periodic one-on-one calls with anyone wanting more time to discuss their career trajectory after the layoffs.

Communicate as much information as possible

Communicating with employees about layoffs is an important and ongoing process. Employees should be able to turn to you with questions about what the company is doing and how its restructuring process is progressing. Make sure to share any new information you can about these efforts and what employees can expect over time. If you can’t answer a question, be open and transparent about it. Say that you do not know the answer yet and you’ll get back to them as soon as you do.

Support laid-off workers

While you can’t give your laid-off workers their jobs back, you can still support them. Don’t be afraid to check in with those whom you directly supervised. If they are struggling, recommend some support services. Many laid-off employees don’t lose their health coverage right away. So you may be able to provide a phone number for professional help with any physical or mental issues they’re facing. If they’re having trouble retooling themselves, recommend educational and/or upskilling services to help prep them for their next job. Additionally:

  • Write endorsements on their professional profiles online.
  • Leverage your network to identify job openings in your industry.
  • Offer to review resumes with a “manager’s eye.”
  • Give glowing references when asked.

As a manager who’s just gone through a company-wide downsizing effort, it’s up to you to help your remaining employees through the grieving process. Give them time to process their thoughts and feelings. Let them reacclimate to their additional or new job duties. Openly discuss the layoffs, why they happened, and company plans for how to avoid layoffs moving forward.

During your communications and as you move forward, do your best to avoid corporate jargon. And don’t try to smooth over the occurrence with overly positive hype. It’s best to proceed with sincerity and honesty that doesn’t sugarcoat the state of the company. 

Also, reassess your current employee retention strategy. Is there room for improvement to revitalize the work environment, employee engagement, and the desire to stay? By focusing on the future, you begin the process of rebuilding employee trust, morale, and company culture.

For more on HR and business management, find tips, tools, and other resources daily at Workest.

1Differences in psychological and physical health among layoff survivors: The effect of layoff contact”, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 

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