Lessons for Companies With Workers Combating Survivor’s Guilt


Throughout the pandemic, the mental well-being of employees has been an important part of maintaining organizational success. But the survivor’s guilt felt by workers who make it through layoffs and furloughs can be hard on them and detrimental to productivity.

In addition to saying goodbye to comrades—and wondering who’s next—workers often face more responsibility, which can lead to burnout. How do you maintain an atmosphere of safety and sanity? We asked two experts to share their perspectives on how to preserve morale and help workers persevere.

Psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, who counsels professionals and spent 15 years in the corporate world before starting her practice, says the negative repercussions of layoffs include despondency, grief, and mistrust. “When you’ve survived, it’s not your responsibility to have survived, and it’s not something you had control over,” she says. “The guilt is irrational and disproportionate to the situation.”

Spinelli suggests that employees and organizations experiencing reductions do the following:

  • Encourage acceptance and processing of negative emotions that come from such a jarring experience, and acknowledge feelings of confusion and distress.
  • Connect with a leader on challenges that feel particularly intimidating to maintain a sense of control in an uncertain situation.
  • Combat negative self-talk by recognizing that each survivor is important, supported, and appreciated.
  • Spread awareness of, and encourage the use of, company mental health resources.

As a result of the economic downturn, phone service provider TextNow Inc. was forced to lay off about 20% of its workers, or about 20 people. “We’re not trying to ‘fix it,’ but we want to say we hear you and here are some of the things we’re going to do,” says Lindsay Gibson, TextNow’s chief operating officer.

To be a successful leader during layoffs, Gibson makes these suggestions:

  • Tell workers it’s OK to reach out to laid-off colleagues and remain in contact with them.
  • Allow for breaks and time off for employees who now have bigger workloads.
  • Recognize that people respond differently to trauma, and use this to create a dialogue about newfound expectations and boundaries.
  • Prioritize transparency—hold town hall meetings frequently and share the company’s updated plan of action.
  • Conduct anonymous surveys every few weeks to check in on what employees are most concerned about.
  • Offer resources such as mental health workshops, access to office equipment, or meeting-free days once a week so employees can work without external distractions.
  • Implement frequent one-on-one check-ins to give concerned employees the chance to ask more personal questions.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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