Workers feel survivor's guilt as pandemic continues and layoffs deepen

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Employee burnout is on the rise given what can seem like an endless number of stressors at work, at home and in managing daily life during a global health crisis. In the U.S., which is experiencing an economic collapse and unemployment crisis not seen in decades, people who remain on the job are weathering a new type of stress the longer the pandemic goes on: survivor's guilt in the workplace.

Survivor's guilt, or survivor syndrome, is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder when a person survives a traumatic event but others don't, says John Hackston, a chartered psychologist and head of thought leadership for The Myers-Briggs Company. The person may feel guilty and believe they've done something wrong or aren't deserving of survival.

These feelings can also show up in the workplace when an organization goes through rounds of furloughs and layoffs, Hackston says. According to his research in late July, roughly one-third of workers said they felt guilty about having a job when others at their company had been furloughed or laid off. The share of workers who feel this way has steadily increased from April through the summer months, Hackston adds, suggesting that people feel worse the longer the unemployment crisis continues and organizations continue cutting staff. Employers in some of the hardest-hit industries like travel, leisure and hospitality are still cutting tens of thousands of employees due to financial strains from the pandemic.

When survivor's guilt manifests in the workplace, Hackston says, people may experience stress, overwork, performance anxiety and even withdrawal. CNBC Make It spoke with workplace experts about how supervisors and employees can manage these feelings.

Be transparent about the layoff process

After a company layoff, it's only a matter of time before remaining workers start to wonder if they'll be next. Hackston says company leaders should do what they can to quell these fears by being transparent about the reasons why certain roles were eliminated as a direct result of the pandemic.

Leaders can regularly share business metrics and share all the steps the company is taking to cut costs and adapt to a new business model, as well as their plans for financial recovery.

Hackston says workers will want to know that "decisions about the layoffs were made on the basis of relevant factors, which the person who left had no control over, and that even if the organization made other sacrifices, it wouldn't have changed the outcome."

Additionally, managers should be transparent about the actual layoff process and their concrete plans to support workers who depart the organization. Leaders may confirm that laid-off workers received a severance package and continued health insurance coverage, that they could be rehired if the company rebounds financially, or that they've been connected with an outplacement firm for help finding a new job.

"It's important to know people who were laid off were treated well," Hackston adds.

Recognize workers for taking on new challenges

When a company reduces its headcount, it's likely the remaining workers will be expected to learn new skills or take on additional responsibilities. Experts say leaders should recognize workers' ability to adapt during a time of significant change and challenges.

Managers would also do well to check in on how people are feeling, not just about workload, but also about their feelings of job security, the company and life during the pandemic overall.

"Just asking the simple question 'how are you?' has become a loaded question that can change hour to hour, and day to day," says Mollie West Duffy, a workplace culture expert and co-author of "No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work." Workers may be reluctant to say they're struggling or need a break when they feel lucky to have a job at all.

Managers can be more proactive in checking in with their employees and facilitate direct conversation. Instead of asking how someone is doing, for example, consider asking "What's changed for you this week?" or even "How are you feeling about X change that's happened at work?"

Employees can advocate for themselves, too. "Remember, no one has figured this out," West Duffy says. "There is no one way to deal with this stress. What you need to do is listen to your emotional needs, and meet some of those needs" while completing the work that's expected of you.  Consider speaking up if your manager isn't supporting you while adjusting to a new way of working. "Hopefully we'll see people, as time goes on, get better at asking for what they need," West Duffy adds.

Offer help to former colleagues

Checking in with a former colleague can go a long way in showing you care. Try reaching out within a week of you learning they've been laid off, says LT Ladino Bryson, the CEO of vCandidates who's known within her circle as The Employment Therapist.

Offer to be a sounding board if they need to vent about how they're feeling, Ladino Bryson says. Avoid centering the discussion around yourself, especially if you're feeling guilty or stressed about remaining employed. And if they're looking for a new job, consider how you can help them in their next move.

"Is there a way you can help network on their behalf, be a reference for that colleague or find another way to be as supportive as possible during this process?" Ladino Bryson says. Even if you don't know about an immediate job opening, you could connect them with recruiters you've worked with before, invite them to networking groups outside your workplace, help them review their resume or just continue to stay in touch with their job-search process and other life updates.

Remember they may be going through additional personal challenges during the pandemic and may not be able to respond to every outreach.

Make the layoff process more compassionate

Survivor's guilt could sour to anger if workers learn their employer didn't handle the layoff process well. An employer that conducts a mass layoff over Zoom or doesn't offer severance pay to outgoing workers, for example, could breech what experts refer to as the psychological contract of a workplace. If the basic contract of a workplace is that you offer your time and talents to an employer in exchange for pay, Hackston explains, a psychological contract lays out what's expected of you, what you expect from the company and the values of the organization — such as respect and dignity in the workplace.

"If the bond of trust is broken, all bets are off," Hackston says. It's in leaders' best interests to admit if they handled layoffs poorly and that they're open to hearing from employees about how to repair the relationship.

"Laying out your cards on the table and being open to admitting those errors will take a big step forward," Hackston says.

"You have to creatively close the employee life cycle in a way that honors the time that employee has been with you," Ladino Bryson adds. "So many companies fail at that."

She encourages workers to hold leaders accountable to make the process better.

"To an employee who feels resentment for how something was done and feel it was done inappropriately, it's extremely important the employee go to HR," Ladino Bryson says. "Ask, 'do we have an offboarding process that's more empathetic than what was done? We understand why the layoffs were done, but we don't understand how this great company could do it so wrong.'"

As an employee, you can also start discussions about ways to cut non-labor costs, bring in new business, and potentially bring back furloughed or laid off employees.

Build new support systems at work

Layoffs can be especially hard if you lose colleagues who've come to be close friends. In addition to reaching out to your former colleague to check in, you could improve your day-to-day morale by forging new relationships with other workers who remain with the company.

"When people lose a friend at work, they tend to feel lonely," Ladino Bryson says. "What gets people depressed is feeling like they have no one to talk to. But why don't you try making other friends?"

She says doing so can feel awkward at first, but people will likely empathize and share your concerns. They may be feeling the same way if they've lost a friend in the workplace, too.

"Find other people to befriend in the company so you can start to develop more relationships at work so you're not alone," Ladino Bryson says. See the end of one working relationship as "an opportunity to connect with others."

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