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Stopping Survivor Guilt

Stopping Survivor Guilt

Rebecca Reisner | Bussiness Week

As an administrator in an era of massive layoffs, it’s your job to stave off survivor guilt before it lowers the morale and productivity of remaining employees.

The subject of survivor guilt—the despair employees feel when co-workers fall victim to downsizing— comes up during every recession, but 2009 promises a uniquely virulent strain of the affliction.

“The layoffs are just starting,” says Shafiq Lokhandwala, chief executive officer of NuView Systems, a maker of human resources software. “I think we have only seen about 25% of what’s coming.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in December alone the U.S. lost 524,000 jobs, for a total of 11.1 million unemployed Americans. With the exceptions of health care and education, the recession has hurt every type of industry.

In addition to the impact of their sheer volume, the current layoffs present less hope and more complications for folks cut loose by their employers. “In the past layoffs, there was the feeling laid-off people would get similar jobs to the ones they lost,” says Sheryl Spanier, a Manhattan career coach. “Today whole types of jobs are going to be eliminated.” So if you lived through the 1987 stock market disaster and 2001 dot-com bust, that was just a warm-up exercise in the survivor guilt arena.

From Guilt to Resentment

Members of the Baby Boom generation on your staff may be particularly vulnerable to the anxieties surrounding layoffs. “Younger people are more comfortable with the idea of people moving around and changing jobs a lot,” says Roy Cohen, a career counselor and executive coach based in New York City. “But baby boomers have the idea that you’re supposed to stay in the same place.”

So why do surviving employees, with their newly enlarged workloads, spend their time feeling guilty about layoffs they had no hand in perpetrating? "It’s not a rational reaction, but it’s only human to think ‘Why them? Why not me?’ " says Spanier. “They feel sympathetic toward the people who lost their jobs and worry about their well-being, their economic situation.” Wikipedia defines survivor guilt in general as “a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives himself or herself to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event.”

As an adjunct to the sympathy they feel for laid-off co-workers, employees go through three self-centered stages, says Jason Zickerman, president of the Alternative Board, an executive consulting firm based in Denver.

1. Whew! I made the cut.
2. I have to do all this work.
3. They don’t appreciate me.

“You’ll see changes in personality. Outgoing people now being silent. Work isn’t as good, and absenteeism rises,” he advised. “There’s anxiety and pressure, the beginning of depression in the case of some. For employees, layoffs are not in their control, and whenever someone else is holding the puppet strings, it’s stressful.”

Soon, the business itself can feel the effects of survivor’s guilt on its bottom line. Fortunately, business consultants say, survivor’s guilt is highly responsive to treatment if senior management acts early and often.

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