Monday, 24 July 2017

DEALING WITH LAYOFF SURVIVOR SICKNESS

It has lately become common to hear news of layoffs, especially in the IT, Telecom and BFSI sectors. The reasons range from a general slowdown in the economy, lower consumer spending, a sharp contraction in exports, and artificial intelligence/automation taking over jobs that were otherwise done by humans.

Needless to say, losing a job is a gut-wrenching experience for those who have been let go. Indeed, people who lose their jobs are left to struggle with tremendous amounts of stress, anger, hurt, grief and fear about what the future holds for them. Interestingly though, some (if not all) of those left on the job after a layoff also tend to find themselves mentally and emotionally drained after surviving the ordeal. These survivors go through what is known as ‘layoff survivor sickness’ (LSS), which is a complex concoction of emotions.

Losing a job is not just hard for those who have been let go...it is also mentally and emotionally draining for survivors

Layoffs are used as a measure to “get rid of the deadwood”, reduce costs and improve efficiencies. However, they create a sense of personal violation and can severely impact personal and organisational performance at a time when the organisation needs a concerted effort to bring about a change for the better. There are at least five survivors for every laid-off employee, and therefore, organisations can not afford to ignore the impact of LSS. Unfortunately, not enough has been written on this subject.

The feelings and emotions that employees going through LSS encounter are:-

1) Fear, uncertainty and insecurity
Employees that have survived a layoff might find themselves in shock, and although they will initially feel relieved that their jobs are intact, they might eventually begin to feel anxious. The fear and insecurity will stem from the perception that their jobs have been retained only for the short term and that there are more cuts to come in the near future.

What employees should do: The most human and instinctive reaction to layoffs is panic. This can hamper an employee’s general well-being, peace of mind, and performance at the workplace. The ideal thing for an employee to do is to maintain his/her composure and have a back-up plan in place for contingencies. Discussing possibilities of cutting household budgets with dear ones, evaluating and enhancing skill sets, and regularly monitoring opportunities are some activities that could make employees feel more in control.

What employers should do: It would not be wise for companies to create fear and panic among employees by bluntly revealing their layoff plans to employees. This would make it practically impossible to get employees to sustain their focus on their tasks. However, the right thing to do would be creating and maintaining lines of communication to keep employees regularly updated about the state of the business and to seek advice. Some effective channels of communication are information meetings, informal chats, emails, and even one-on-ones. This approach helps foster trust in the management and better understanding among employees.

2) Anger, resentment, frustration, betrayal and distrust
It might be argued that employees who have survived ought to be grateful for having been allowed to keep their jobs. However, it is sometimes possible for survivor employees to feel anger, resentment, betrayal and distrust towards the organisation and their bosses after a layoff, especially if it came as a complete surprise.

What employees should do: Contrary to popular belief, keeping grief and frustration bottled up is not the right way to go. Venting feelings should not be construed as a sign of weakness, albeit in a professional and civil manner. Layoff survivors ought to surround themselves with positive and supportive people. However, engaging in gossip and loose talk with excessively negative colleagues could be unproductive and exacerbate the negativity.

What employers should do: Companies should desist from misleading employees about their downsizing plans. For instance, stating early-on that jobs will not be affected, only to eventually bring the axe down will certainly lead to a great degree of anger and mistrust among survivors. It can cause a major dent in motivation and even lead to high performers considering leaving. After the layoff, employers must actively listen and respond to survivors in an empathetic manner.

3) Guilt, sadness and depression
It is normal for employees who have survived a layoff to feel a heavy sense of guilt. They begin to retrospect about their careers and the reasons for their survival. Survivors who witness their valued colleagues or work buddies being fired are overcome with grief, which could develop into depression if left ignored.

What employees should do: It helps to recognise that these feelings are normal. Denying or bottling up these feelings will not help. In fact, taking time off to grieve can be of immense help. Talking it out with someone who is a good and sensible listener can also help alleviate the pain.

What employers should do: Providing counselling to survivors can be highly beneficial to help employees acknowledge and vent their feelings and to attain some sort of closure.

4) Feelings of disillusionment and worthlessness
Survivors might feel disillusioned with the work life and culture in the organisation and might begin to look at themselves as mere numbers/resources and statistics in the eyes of the management. They might begin to feel that the organisation doesn’t really care about them or their co-workers and are only concerned with revenues and profits.

Layoffs aren't easy for the management either

What employees should do: Employees must recognise the fact that layoffs are not easy for the management either – these are decisions that require a great degree of courage and objectivity. Layoff survivors invariably tend to end up with heavier workloads, and therefore, it would be helpful for them to openly communicate with their bosses the fact that it would be possible to make a few mistakes while coping with the workload. Survivors should also consider attributing a sense of value and purpose in their own profession rather than in the organisation.

What employers should do: Employers should ensure that their layoff processes are respectful and afford a dignified exit to those being asked to leave. Layoff survivors should be able to see that dismissed employees are being treated well. For instance, if the employees who were asked to leave suddenly find it hard to get in touch with the HR department to get their paperwork or compensation settled, it will put the company in bad light, even in the eyes of survivors. Companies must also explore the possibility of extending a few work-linked benefits like insurance, healthcare, etc., to retrenched employees after layoffs, maybe for a few months. The organisation must also share with survivors their plans for improvement, and results.

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