Posted by: kenwbudd | March 2, 2009

The Survivors’ Guilt

“But at least you still have a job.”

Yes, those who survive the all-too frequent layoffs are very grateful for their work, but studies show that the stress from all the upheaval can wreak havoc on their health, morale and productivity. And don’t expect them to work harder out of sheer gratitude

Working with the survivors is challenging. These people have lost good friends, vast quantities of institutional knowledge, pay raises, benefits. Plus, they are being asked to take on other people’s work and add it to their own heavy load. The company is expecting them to be upbeat about it.

There’s that low-level anxiety, vulnerability to colds and flu, aches and pains, sleeping difficulties. When you’re anxious, waiting for that next shoe to drop, your body stays in a kind of fight-or-flight mode. Your body is overproducing adrenaline and cortisol. The hormones you need to sustain yourself during a crisis and the substances your body is producing are very toxic.

There can be guilt that they were spared. This can manifest itself as, anger and depression. Clearly, there’s a huge increase in insecurity and that uncertainty is very destabilizing.

As part of a 10-year study of downsizing at a major U.S. manufacturer, looking at depression in workers, in surveys two years apart in the ‘90s.

Depression scores dropped by more than half in those who took a voluntary buyout. There was little change in those who left involuntarily, but, interestingly, depression scores rose slightly among the workers who stayed on.

From the company’s data on sick leave, it was found that managers and other higher-skilled workers took more sick leave, possibly to look for other jobs. Less-skilled workers, meanwhile, took less sick leave and absenteeism at the company declined as workers hunkered down, trying to hang on to their jobs. Remembering that this was in a job market much more favorable than that of today.

This points to research that layoffs often don’t improve companies’ financial performance – essentially the reason they are done in the first place – and to a 2003 study by the Institute of Behavioral Science that found that people who had seen co-workers laid off reported poorer mental and physical health than workers who had not been exposed to layoffs at all.

The whole metaphor breaks down. We’re a family. We take care of each other and you don’t divorce your children.

Reporting even worse health and attitudes were layoff survivors who were shifted to different positions or departments within the company.

One of the inherent dangers for companies is that handling layoffs badly can taint the perceptions of those who are left. They’re the ones the company is relying on to move the company forward, yet that depends on the respect that remains for those who have led the downsizing.

A lot was going on with the companies studied, including a merger, an increase in outsourcing and a move away from its “we’re a family” culture towards a shareholder-driven, profits first company. Workers took that as a betrayal, with comments that they were being treated as a number or an expendable commodity.

It’s hard enough for workers to concentrate when rumors are swirling at the water cooler and online and these can quickly turn toxic in the absence of reliable and reassuring information from the company but to see coworkers escorted from the building like criminals only severely hurts morale.

Though plenty of articles say productivity goes down for layoff survivors but it’s not that simple. It depends on how productivity is measured and the economic climate in which it occurs, e.g. any form of restructuring and change will take some getting used to.

Workers need time to grieve after a layoff, just as they would a death in the family and workers who have to take up the slack might require more support and training, which suggests there will certainly be a period of inefficiency until everyone is up to speed on the new tasks.

A recent US survey report bears a real sting. It’s based on surveys of 4,172 workers who survived corporate layoffs. In the study:

• 75 percent said their productivity has decreased.
• 64 percent said it’s true of coworkers.
• 69 percent said the quality of the company’s products or services has declined.
• 81 percent said customer service has been hurt.
• And 61 percent believed the layoffs have hurt their company’s future prospects.

The bright spot in the survey, however, echoed the advice of many experts: You can lessen the blow by being as open and forthright with employees as possible. Workers who rated their managers as visible, approachable and candid, even when there was nothing new to report, were much less likely to report these declines. You really can’t over-communicate during these events.

Let your surviving workers know that they are here because they are the right people for the job. Let them that you believe in them and together they can work to get the company through these very challenging times. You’ve got to show them your respect, trust and appreciation. Help them prioritize their work. Let them know why they are there and let them know how they can help and how you are going to support them.

This is not the time to sit quietly in your executive office and neglect your people. They need leadership and they need it now. You have to be out there amongst them, letting them know what’s going on and have them feel that you’re fighting for them.


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