And then, there’s that other feeling: survivor’s guilt. Turns out, that after a round of layoffs this feeling of uneasy relief is quite common. One in three workers reported feeling guilty for having a job while others at their company had been laid off, according to a 2020 survey by The Myers-Briggs Company.
We talk a lot about bouncing back from getting laid off, but what about when you’re one of the workers left behind? How do you deal with inevitable feelings of uncertainty and self doubt? How do you navigate those awkward convos with your former colleagues? And most importantly, how do you tell your boss that you’re overwhelmed due to the increased workload and demand? We asked Jami Shanes, a licensed professional counselor at LifeStance Health to share her tips for both employees and managers.
You've just survived a company-wide layoff. What are some things you can do to cope with feelings of guilt?By definition, survivor's guilt is “a response to an event in which someone else experienced loss but you did not,” according to Centerstone, a behavioral health and addiction clinic. But it doesn’t have to be a loss of life, it can also be a loss of property, health, identity or a job (often called workplace survivor syndrome). You might be asking yourself, “Why was I spared and not my coworkers?” or, “Am I next?” These emotions—the self-doubt, the guilt, the worrying—are all normal.
“I would take time to sit with those feelings and explore them,” says Shanes. “This will feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to deal with challenging emotions head-on rather than burying them or not acknowledging them. It can be beneficial to engage in positive self-talk and remind yourself that you have value and worth as an employee.”
Another thing Shanes recommends? Having a work toolkit, or a go-to list of quick and easy self-care ideas to do during the workday or after your 9 to 5. “It could include five- or ten-minute meditation, journaling, breathing exercises or even making yourself a healthy snack,” she says. Plus, some companies offer counseling through an EAP (employee assistance program). Chat with an HR representative to figure out what other resources might be available at your company.
How can managers help boost morale and re-energize their team after layoffs?If you’re a manager whose team is looking to you to ease their insecurity and uncertainty, here is exactly what you should do, according to Shanes:
Don’t ignore it. Trying to move on too quickly after a layoff won’t instill the confidence that the team needs to be able to continue to work effectively.
Be as clear as possible. “Explain how the layoffs will impact the day-to-day workload and open up a dialogue about how the team feels moving forward or any concerns that they may have,” she says.
Have an open-door policy so your team can feel comfortable coming to talk to you.
- Be transparent. “Employees won’t be able to confidently work well if they are in fear that their job is at risk or that the future of the company is in question,” says Shanes. Let them know the reasoning behind the layoffs, and what the path forward is, so that they have something to focus on and work towards. “When employees don't feel appreciated, that's when trouble can arise. Talk to your staff, listen to their concerns and provide tangible solutions,” she says.
Your work BFF got laid off but you didn't. How do you navigate those awkward convos?
It’s hard enough seeing your colleagues get laid off, but someone who you spend every lunch break with, gossip on Slack with and hang out with outside of work hours? That hurts even more. It’s normal for your relationship to change once you no longer work together, but how do you still show support during this tricky—and often awkward—time?
“During conversations that feel awkward, it’s important to let that person know that you care about them, and you’ll help them to get through this,” advises Shanes. “Concentrate on their feelings and immediate concerns, and how you might be able to help them. Could you offer to look at their resumé, or connect them with anyone in your network? It's important to give yourself some grace and remember that you had no control over the layoffs and should never be made to feel guilty by someone who was laid off. Should a friend make you feel ‘bad’ about still having your job; it may be in your favor to re-evaluate the friendship.”
How can you talk to your boss about feeling overwhelmed due to an increased workload?
One of the struggles of surviving a company-wide layoff? Being left with the mountains of unfinished projects, presentations and clients. Everyone’s scrambling to peace together who was looking after which deliverables and how to still get them done on time, while also staying on top of their already overwhelming list of to-dos. It should only be temporary, but if you’re taking on the responsibilities of multiple people (and not being compensated for it), you need to speak to your manager.
“Be candid about the workload increase and your concerns about sustainability, while also making sure they know you are still committed to doing the best job possible,” says Shanes. “Using ‘I’ statements and being clear about what is becoming an issue can be helpful such as, ‘I’m finding it challenging to keep the quality of my work consistent now that I’ve taken over my coworker's responsibilities as well.’”
It's also important that you set yourself boundaries, advises Shanes. “After layoffs, some employees tend to open themselves up to work 24/7 in fear of future cuts, or out of gratitude that they weren’t laid off. Many of us are happy to work longer hours sometimes, or pick up an extra project—but we cannot be expected to do the job of five people.”
Learning to say no (yes, even after layoffs) is essential because in the long run, you’re just going to get burned out, become less productive, quiet quit or actually quit which will inevitably hurt your employer in the end. It’s in your boss’ best interest to make sure you have a manageable workload and you feel reassured, supported and celebrated, so you’ll want to stick around for a while.