Strategies to Minimise Survivor Syndrome

Restructuring is a very stressful time for everyone involved. Often restructuring involves redundancies and can be particularly taxing for the people who make the tough decisions as well as those who come out of the process without a job. However, is it possible that the remaining employees suffer just as much in their own right? There is a tendency to count the remaining employees as “lucky” and give them little consideration, but could we be missing something?

Survivor syndrome has been defined as the physical and psychological impact of redundancies on the remaining staff who didn’t lose their jobs. According to a survey by IRS Employment Review, Survivor Syndrome can actually limit the potential financial savings of redundancies by reducing the performance and attendance of the remaining employees and increasing staff turnover.

A study published in 2008 by Leadership IQ reported that “guilt” was one of the top three words used by the surviving staff to describe their feelings. Others include “anger” and “anxiety”.  For employees suffering from Survivor Syndrome, emotions can stem from a number of places.  They may experience sadness for their co-workers who are gone, relief and guilt that they still have a job of their own, anxiety at the possibility that they could also lose their job at any moment and stress associated with an increased workload and fewer resources at their disposal.  So how can organisations minimise this impact? Three suggestions outlined by Burnham (2009) include:

  • Communicate – The way employees perceive the process of a restructure depends on how much information is shared and when. Communicating with staff throughout the downsizing process, revealing the rationale for the decision and the actions taken to prevent it may reduce the likelihood of the surviving employees viewing the restructure as impulsive or unfair.
  • Lead by example – Restructuring is part of business and tough decisions must be made. However, the light in which surviving employees view the organisation once the process is complete is crucial. Therefore, leading them towards a brighter future is essential to keeping them engaged and committed.
  • Create opportunity – Providing your remaining employees with additional training and motivating them to seek out ways to improve their skills is going to be critical in making them feel valued. Providing them with this additional support also tells them that the organisation is dedicated to their future development.

These strategies are particularly important for surviving employees as they are often expected to feel grateful to be in their position, therefore they may feel unable to voice how they are feeling.  As an organisation, attempting to understand their position and acknowledging that they have been through an uncertain and unsettling period is the first step in ensuring a positive and healthy work environment for the future.

What are your thoughts? Should we focus some attention on keeping remaining employees engaged or simply count them as one of the lucky ones?


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