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Workplace Survivor Syndrome: What it is and How to Face the Challenges
Organizational Cultures

Workplace Survivor Syndrome: What it is and How to Face the Challenges

Sharon Monteiro
January 15, 2024

It’s no secret that employee burnout has been on the rise ever since the pandemic started. Employees face endless stressors at work, at home and in managing their daily lives, all during a global health crisis. However, with pandemic-related layoffs, downsizings, and an unprecedented number of workers leaving the workforce for safety reasons, the people who remain on the job are weathering an additional type of stress: the survivor’s guilt in the workplace.

Known as “workplace survivor syndrome,” it is a condition that several experts say can seriously impair staff productivity, damage social connections and support, and critically impact employees’ sense of psychological safety at work. However, workplace survivor syndrome isn’t a new phenomenon and pre-dates the 2019 pandemic. While workplace survivor syndrome is a common occurrence, Human Resources professionals can help their teams navigate the types of changes that can lead to it.

What is workplace survivor syndrome?

Job losses have emotional, psychological and organizational repercussions on those left behind in the company. Workplace survivor syndrome is seen by experts as the consequence of downsizing and restructuring and denotes repercussions faced by those who ‘survive’ the redundancy program.

As with any traumatic event, the survivors experience a range of adverse effects including impaired productivity, lack of trust in leadership and organizational commitment, negative attitudes, and elevated work-life balance conflicts.

According to a report by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), the range of adverse effects that an individual with workplace survivor syndrome experiences would include:


How to face the challenges of workplace survivor syndrome

Human Resources and management mustn’t wait until workplace survivor syndrome or similar problems emerge. They should assume that the staff are well on their way to developing these and must be proactive. Anticipate and acknowledge all difficult emotions, and provide substantial support throughout the transition.

In practice, how does this look? While every business is different, there are a few best practices that can help address or reduce stress and anxiety. Here's a list of them.

1. Communicate change

If restructuring and changes are on the horizon, regardless of the circumstances, the manner and frequency with which HR and management effectively communicate the changes will have far-reaching consequences.

Giving advance notification of reasons and processes, being open and honest, making senior management more accessible, and encouraging employee participation at all stages can help prevent gossip from eroding psychological safety.

It is essential to over-communicate and begin early. The first and most important step is to keep all communication about staff changes clear and compassionate.

When you conduct layoffs, it won't simply just affect the person who is losing their job, it will affect everyone else who witnesses the event also known as the survivors guilt after layoffs. So, you need to pay particular attention to the line managers who will be coping with their own staff’s anxieties, and you need to share your appreciation and thanks for those who remain.

2. Bring in assistance

Engage external resources to offer the remaining staff members at your company the support they need to process their emotions, regardless of whether the staff redundancies will take place in the near future or are a legacy that will continue to affect the workplace.

Enrol in qualified EAP [Employee Assistance Program] support for forums that are facilitated to help people who are experiencing frustration, grief, or guilt. Giving people the opportunity to talk about it in a safe environment often helps reduce their emotions' intensity.

3. Reduce your expectations

Layoffs and staff reductions may come with an implicit pressure to continue operations as usual, or even a sense of pressure to produce more to make up for the reduced headcount, but pressuring remaining employees to act as though nothing has changed is neither realistic nor compassionate. Furthermore, it is not prudent if maintaining the relationships and productivity of your remaining staff is crucial.

Allow the employees time to get used to the changes. During the transition, provide wellness breaks and reduce productivity expectations.

It’s not universal

While survivors may feel the effects of downsizing just as strongly as those whose jobs are lost, this may not be a universally accepted concept and may not exist in all business situations or industry sectors.

There may be a predisposition to Workplace Survivor Syndrome symptoms and behaviours. As a result, while redundancy can be a turning point for true proactive career development for some, it can also be a source of extreme stress for others.

Two theories seek to explain the existence of workplace survivor syndrome: Becker’s Side Bet Theory (1960), and Burke’s Identity Theory (1991).

According to Becker's Side Bet Theory (1960), people invest psychologically and emotionally in an organisation, but these investments are lost when they leave their jobs. As investments grow in value, the individual's cost of leaving grows over time. Unless the benefits or profits of leaving outweigh the costs, an individual will be strongly motivated to stay with the organisation. In terms of organisational outcomes, there is little empirical evidence to support this model.

Contrarily, Burke's Identity Theory (1991) is based on individual variations in the value attached to a particular job. According to this study, the psychological relevance of external stress factors to an individual's role identity may be able to mitigate their negative effects on well-being (such as downsizing). This emphasis will have repercussions as and when organisational change happens, and it suggests that the more significance a person attaches to their job as a source of self-identification, the more personal and psychologically damaging any change in that job will be.

Although much more research is needed in this area, it may be interesting to determine whether there are any differences in the prevalence of workplace survivorship among different industrial sectors, and if so, whether these differences are related to the proportions of men or women working in those sectors.

Workplace Survivor Syndrome | peopleHum

How employees can cope

There are many ways to be proactive in dealing with a company restructure, including the following:

1. Take note of their emotions

Examine the list of side effects above to see if they are suffering from workplace survivor syndrome.

2. Fight the instinct to feel bad

Employees shouldn't neglect themselves because of feelings of guilt, such as reasoning that if other people are suffering, why should you be happy?

When one loses a coworker, they may also lose a friend. Along with the relief of keeping the job comes the guilt-ridden question, "Why did the company pick me over her?" Work will not always be the same, and employees may have lost their sense of direction, not to mention the consequences of such an act on their personal relationships.

3. Don't feel pressed to work harder

If work is piling up as a result of fewer employees, employees should not feel obligated to do more and more out of fear of being next on the redundancy list. If they believe the situation will worsen, they may begin to look for a new job while remaining committed to their current one.

To avoid jeopardising their prospects, employees should resist the temptation to leave too soon and instead remain committed to their long-term career path.

4. Maintain a healthy level of stress

Although some adrenaline can speed up work, employees must avoid being under constant stress. Constantly being in panic mode floods the body with stress hormones, which can lead to burnout. Make an effort to work methodically. Although they may be willing workers, they must also take care to safeguard their health and well-being.

This may imply learning to say "no" at times, but doing so in a positive way. For instance, they could inform their boss that while they value the business and are willing to put in a lot of effort, they are unable to finish this task to a high standard in the allotted time.

5. Speak with your boss or line manager

If the company was not forthcoming about the downsizing process, now is the time to speak with a manager or HR representative about how the process was carried out and what they expect of the employees.

Keep in mind that managers may be managing a smaller team and will be managing the stress of that in addition to the emotions of deciding whom to lay off. Talking might also be beneficial for managers, who frequently feel like they must keep their emotions to themselves and maintain a strong façade.

6. Consider the positive

Employees should try to maintain their optimism despite the fact that it is normal for them to experience sadness, rage, and anxiety in the wake of a workforce reduction. They can decide to concentrate on the advantages, such as how it has strengthened their position as a valued employee and how they might get the chance to upgrade their skills.

Additionally, it might benefit career advancement in the short- or long-term because fewer employees mean less competition and better chances for promotion.

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