Helping Employees Deal with “Career Grief” After Layoffs

Your employees may be feeling guilt for surviving layoffs, and it could affect their health and productivity. Here’s how to lead your staff through this difficult time.

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Steps to help your employees cope with grief post-layoffs

Layoffs have always been difficult for workers, including those who lost their jobs and the coworkers they left behind. Even before the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the economy, workers experienced “career grief” over lost jobs, including those lucky ones who survived mass layoffs. Now that the pandemic has cost more than 38 million people their jobs, we are seeing this career grief sweep over large swaths of the population.

Nobody is surprised to hear that layoffs are hard on the people who lost their jobs. These folks have lost their only source of income. And with so many businesses shut down, their prospects for finding a new job are very small.

What’s a bit more surprising is that the workers who survived the layoffs are feeling pain, too. A study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that layoff survivors experience poorer health than other workers, including symptoms of depression and eating changes. It would be dangerous for employers to ignore this fact, because the career grief of your remaining employees is a festering wound that can cause your business to fail if left untreated.

Why do layoff survivors experience career grief?

After a mass layoff, everything at your company changes. For one thing, workloads are shifting. You have fewer people doing the work. That could mean that your staff is overwhelmed, doing the jobs of several people at once. Alternatively, if your industry is suffering, you might have less work to do, and your surviving employees may be worried that their jobs are the next to go.

In addition, the employees you still have are missing their former coworkers. These are people who used to spend every day together. In some cases, they are very close friends. And even though it’s possible to maintain friendships after one coworker moves on, it’s not the same.

But perhaps the most significant reason that remaining employees suffer after a layoff is survivor guilt. Much like people who survive other catastrophes — like car accidents and plane crashes — layoff survivors are likely to feel guilty that they are still around when people they care about aren’t.

The grief and guilt affects productivity in a big way. One recent study by Leadership IQ found that 74% of layoff survivors say their own productivity has dropped since a layoff. And 77% say they see errors being made at work. Even more troubling, 61% of remaining workers have less confidence in their company’s future prospects.

Much like people who survive other catastrophes — like car accidents and plane crashes — layoff survivors are likely to feel guilty that they are still around when people they care about aren’t.

How to navigate career grief and improve productivity

Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to help your employees cope with career grief after a layoff.

1. Acknowledge your employees’ career grief

According to a study published last year in the International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, “survivor syndrome” would be minimized if managers considered the feelings of layoff survivors with more open communication. Simply acknowledging how your employees are feeling allows you to name the issue, which is the first step in dealing with it.

2. Be visible

The Leadership IQ study cited above also found that when managers were perceived as visible, approachable, and candid, their workers were 72% less likely to report a decrease in their own productivity. These same workers were 65% less likely to say the quality of their company’s product or service had declined.

So even if it feels awkward to strike up conversations with your staff right after letting so many of them go, you have to do it. You can do this in both structured and unstructured ways. Dedicate an entire staff meeting to a post-layoff discussion. Do it over Zoom if you’re working remotely. Allow your employees ask you anything they want to, and answer with as little defensiveness as possible. After that, carve out 10 minutes from each subsequent staff meeting to do the same. Let people know that you aren’t afraid to talk about it, and you want to be there to lead them through this difficult time.

We’re also big believers in “management by walking around.” This means coming out of your office and literally walking around the spaces where your employees are. Knock on cubicle walls or office doors and check in. Just ask people how they’re doing or what they’re working on. Even a simple “hello” lets people know that you’re available if they need anything.

If your staff is working remotely, you can accomplish the same goals through Zoom meetings and emails. Send “check-in” emails every now and then to individual staffers. It’s easy to gloss over an “all staff” email, but if you send your message to one employee at a time, they are more likely to feel like they are getting your attention. Schedule periodic one-on-one zoom sessions with anyone who would like a little more time with the boss.

3. Show compassion for laid-off workers

Like we mentioned above, your remaining employees are probably feeling grief over their lost coworkers and guilt for surviving the layoffs. So why not let them see you offering compassion and support for the employees you’ve lost?

There are a few things you can do that will improve former employees’ future job prospects:

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

4. Focus on things you can control

Move the conversation forward by focusing on changes you can make that will help improve your company’s position and secure as many jobs as possible.
After a crisis, many people have a tendency to get stuck in a cycle of wallowing in their negative feelings. Sharing these feelings can be helpful — up to a point. But it must lead to discussions about how you can improve the situation in order to be productive.

Allow your employees a little latitude to process their grief. But then move the conversation forward by focusing on changes you can make that will help improve your company’s position and secure as many jobs as possible.

5. Eliminate wasteful meetings

We hope that one permanent change after the pandemic shutdowns will be eliminating wasteful meetings. Nobody likes to sit in a room for 45 minutes watching a powerpoint presentation of something that could be summed up in a 2 paragraph email. But it’s especially bothersome when your employees have just taken on a bigger workload because of downsizing.

Your people already have a lot on their plates. So before you schedule a meeting, ask yourself if it is worth their time.

6. Prioritize customer experience

Downsizing might mean that you have to cut back on some of your company activities. The most efficient and effective way to choose which activities to keep and which to cut is to prioritize customer experience. After regulatory compliance and safety, your company’s most important tasks are those that have value for your customers. These are the things that will keep you in business for years to come.

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