How to avoid survivor syndrome when managing redundancies

So what do we mean by Survivor Syndrome? The IES define this as “the emotional, psychological, and organisational repercussions faced by those who remain employed, or ‘survive’ the redundancy programme”. Typically, this centres around grief for the loss of colleagues, combined with guilt for surviving, and fear or apprehension for the future.

You may think that it’s inevitable. Redundancies bring with them emotion, loss and anxiety. Redundancies are tricky situations that need to be managed carefully to ensure compliance and fairness.

This is reflected in the amount of guidance available on the process of redundancy. Guidance about ensuring redundancies are fair and comply with legislation. On the other hand, there’s a lack of practical guidance on how to manage redundancies from an emotional point of view or limiting the impact on the mental health of employees.


Why should we consider survivor syndrome?

We know that people perform at their best when they feel psychologically safe, secure and engaged. We also know that organisations with the most engaged employees achieve 26% less employee turnover, 20% less absenteeism and up to 30% greater customer satisfaction levels.

In the middle of a redundancy process, how many people will feel psychologically safe, secure and engaged? A study by the IES found 70% of organisations that have implemented redundancies in a given year repeat the process within the following twelve months. Not much for people to feel confident about is it?

There is a very real bottom-line cost to disengaged employees, so unless we address the issue of survivor syndrome, organisations could be left with very disengaged people just at the time they need them to grow and transform the business. No organisation plans to reduce headcount only. Reducing headcount may be a step on the way to achieving something else, such as refocusing the business to grow again.


What do we need to do?

Steven Covey’s second habit was “Begin with the End in Mind. Begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.”

No one goes into a redundancy or restructuring process to restructure the organisation alone. What is the bigger goal you are trying to accomplish? Redundancies or restructuring should be viewed as one of the steps to take – not the final destination itself. By reframing the situation, you open your mind to different actions.

If you plan to reduce headcount – then that’s all you’ll get. If you plan to transform the organisation to be fit for growth, one of the things you’ll do is reduce headcount. You’ll also think broader than just managing a process and being compliant with the law. To grow a business you need engaged people – already more than you’ll get if you simply managed a redundancy process.


Is there a proven formula to follow?

Each organisation and situation is different, so there isn’t a proven strategy to follow. But there are certain steps you can take to avoid survivor syndrome when managing redundancies:

  • Normalising survivor syndrome by having conversations about how people are feeling
  • Go above and beyond in making those remaining understand their worth to the organisation
  • Create an environment where consistent communication between managers and coworkers is safe and normal
  • Consider giving those who remain access to EAP services and mental health resources
  • Ensure a communication framework around redundancies exists before they take place


While leaders and HR Professionals might feel most concerned with breaking the news to the people being laid off, the conversations shouldn’t stop there. Those left behind can often feel a complicated mix of relief and guilt for not suffering the same fate as their coworker. Forward planning to avoid survivor syndrome when managing redundancies is needed. Even in the most challenging of circumstances, considering the employee experience is crucial. In these unique and challenging times, the employee experience is even more important than usual.


Source: Rhiannon Stafford – Blue Grape

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