'Survivor's guilt' | Mass layoffs leave HR facing a morale crisis among remaining staff

Mass layoffs leave HR facing a morale crisis among remaining staff

The pandemic tech boom has subsided, and after a period of hiring sprees and rapid growth, more recent headlines are filled with tech sector layoffs, hiring freezes and job offers being pulled.

Google's parent Alphabet announced last week that it is cutting about 12,000 jobs as it faces "a different economic reality", according to a staff memo seen by Reuters.

The job cuts affect six percent of the tech behemoth’s workforce, and follows thousands of layoffs at tech giants including Amazon, (18,000 cuts announced) Microsoft (10,000) and Meta, (11,000) which is downsizing after a pandemic-led hiring spree left them flabby in a weak economy.

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When redundancies take place on this scale, there’s a tendency (including from HR Grapevine, admittedly) to focus on how HR should approach the process, from both legal and ethical standpoints, and how to support the outgoing workers in their new job searches – from providing positive references to signposting financial support.

What’s far less highlighted, however, is what happens to the employees who avoid the cull. The immediate reaction to keeping your job is naturally going to be relief, but reality will soon set in, as will feelings of uncertainty (you’re safe for now, but who knows when the need for more redundancies might occur?) sadness and, as we will explore here, guilt.

‘Survivor’s guilt’ - the term is most commonly used to describe the experience of people who believe they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic or tragic event, when others around them did not. 

But, as explained by Centerstone, a non-profit organisation providing support for mental health and substance misuse disorders: “While the name implies this to be a response to the loss of life, it could also be the loss of property, health, identity or a number of other things that are important to people.”

So it’s natural that employees will feel guilt as they carry on with their jobs, while colleagues – several of whom may well have been close friends – are ushered out the door.

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In addition to the guilt, these employees often experience feelings of decreased motivation and morale – all while reporting feeling overworked and discontent with their organisation, according to a survey completed by BizReport, which was conducted to understand how mass layoffs affect businesses and employees.

The study found at least 52% of respondents, who had avoided losing their jobs during a redundancy process, experiences guilt when they realised they got to keep their jobs, but others didn't.

Additionally, 65% of layoff survivors said they have been overworked because they also had to perform the tasks that their laid-off counterparts used to perform. And 61% reported that they are less likely to recommend their company as a great place to work. A major reason behind this is that one-third of those who survived a layoff believe that things will worsen for their company in the future.

So, how can CEOs and business leaders step in to combat the negative effects of downsizing?

Aaron Rubens, CEO and Co-founder of Kudoboard, explained to HR Grapevine how companies can enact workplace appreciation solutions that will be key to subsiding employees’ feelings of survivor’s guilt following mass layoffs.

“Creating a culture of gratitude has an enormous impact on employees, whether you’re trying to restore morale after layoffs or combat an already-toxic company culture”, said Rubens.

“Companies have to create opportunities for employees to recognize each other in authentic ways instead of managers spotlighting the same top performers.

“Maintaining a sense of connection between co-workers can easily be done by recognizing superlative effort, occasions like birthdays, or important life events like weddings or retirements.”

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