With few if any industries being immune to the impact of Covid-19, downsizing and potential redundancy threat are currently very high. Many organisations are undertaking re-structures and reductions in their workforce capacity in order to survive the drop in demand for product and services, and the consequent drop in income. These undertakings will be essential for many businesses, but of equal if not more importance is what remains afterwards.
The remaining workforce are going to be your future, they will be the ones that drive and shape what your business becomes, both in terms of sustainability and culture. With this in mind equal efforts and resources need to be devoted to both supporting an effective exit for some employees and supporting healthy psychological contracts and relationships with those that remain. Failure to effectively support remaining employees can result in what organisational psychologists refer to as ‘Survivor Syndrome’ characterised by negative emotional, psychological, physical, and organisational consequences.
Emotional and psychological consequences of ‘Survivor Syndrome’ might include grief for the loss of those made redundant, negative and unhelpful thoughts, and feelings including guilt, fear, anger, resentment, and loss of confidence in self and others. Physical consequences – often linked to mental health in any case – include tension headaches and migraines, immune system problems, gastric problems, muscular skeletal problems, and recurrence of pre-existing physical and mental health issues. Alongside this there may be the additional impact on the individual and business of any unhelpful coping behaviours that may have developed to manage these and other issues e.g. increased alcohol usage, addiction, etc. These consequences of course do not exist in isolation, we employ ‘whole’ people and those people bring those challenges to work with them. They impact on the business and can be felt in the following non-exhaustive ways:
- Poor performance and productivity
- Increase in absence and ‘presenteeism’
- Aversion to risk
- Health and safety accidents and near misses
- Errors, poor decisions, and costly mistakes
- Relationship difficulties
- Litigation risk
It is important to know that whilst there may be no believed ‘cure all’ for ‘Survivor Syndrome’, there is still lots an employer can do to reduce its likelihood and/or effect. Firstly giving equally effective levels of support to those both exiting the business, and to those remaining. Typically we see support provided to the redundant (or those at threat), but little support provided to those left behind, perhaps a presumption that relief will be enough. It’s important to keep the balance tipped towards the employee wanting to remain with the business and maintaining a healthy psychological contract over a choice to leave voluntarily in the coming weeks and months. This of course starts with a fair and transparent well communicated redundancy process and for this we would encourage employers to follow the best practice advice and guidance from ACAS on ‘Managing Staff Redundancies’ and also making use of the free ACAS based Employer help-line where required. Internal Redundancy Policies also need to be fair and robust and in line with the latest Employment Law in this area.
So assuming the employer gets the process correct – legal, fair, transparent, and well communicated – we are on an optimal platform to ensure that Survivor Syndrome is minimised. But there’s lots to consider here too, for example the impact of ‘Survivor Syndrome’ on different employee groups e.g. gender, age, ethnicity, those with disabilities, and other facets of both diversity and identity. Firstly, it is critical to offer the remaining employees the same level of listening, understanding, and empathy that you offered those leaving the business, the emphasis here on listening to understand, rather than listening to respond, or pre-judging solutions – your solution may not be their solution to any difficulties. Employees will have views about the impact of lost capacity, and may have ideas for future proofing the business to prevent any further loss of employment. This may be new ideas, products and services, or changing systems and processes to become more efficient and cost effective. Some of this may already have been discussed during the redundancy process but new thinking emerges all the time, and having time to reflect may have generated additional ideas from the team. It’s important not to make unnecessary expenditure and important to seriously consider the appropriateness of employee bonus schemes post redundancy, particularly where timing of bonuses is close in proximity to the redundancy loss/losses.
The remaining team need to feel and be effectively supported, so any capacity the business previously had for wellbeing, including people who had taken on specific support roles, may need to be considered going forward. This may include the role of:
- Mental Health First Aiders
- Life Assisting Care Givers
- Physical First Aiders
- Wellbeing Champions
- Suicide Alert Helpers
If there has been lost capacity in other areas, there may well have been lost capacity in these that needs to be rebuilt in the remaining workforce, or it may be a new support role the business has decided to adopt following the process, or in light of Covid-19 itself. If the employer has an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) it is important to establish what current level of benefit the EAP is offering and how employees can access this. EAP’s are notoriously under-utilised for various non-exhaustive reasons:
- Knowledge that they exist in the first place or that the business has this offering
- Knowledge of what the EAP offers
- Knowing how and who can access the EAP services (some EAP benefits may also extend to family members)
- Reassurances about confidentiality of the services – particularly on the back of a redundancy, where there may well be fears that disclosure of a health problem might lead to them being selected in future redundancies should they occur – whilst of course this would be illegal, we want to manage perceptions also. Where stigma exists around a health problem e.g. mental ill health, such thoughts can be exacerbated. Mental health awareness programmes can help to address workplace and community stigma around mental health.
- Belief that the service is not effective or cannot help them.
Direct and open communications need to continue, and that might include keeping in contact with former employees, some of which may return to the business if future prospects change, particularly if relationships remain healthy and communicative. Employees come and go for lots of different reasons, not just redundancy, but they can impact your business way beyond their contract of employment. They take your culture elsewhere and they may keep contact with customers and other stakeholders. They in fact remain a stakeholder of your business themselves because they can continue to shape it from the outside, sometimes very substantially, and not always positively. I myself continue to be shaped by my own employment history and the industries and sectors within which I have worked. I am influenced by the best practices I encountered and so too from the worst. Keep in mind ‘Exit Interviews’ and the valuable information you can capture from these. Such information can also be used as part of future vision and strategy, so encouraging open discussion and feedback here too is valuable.
Appelbaum, S. H., Simpson, R. & Shapiro B T (1987) ‘The Tough Test of Downsizing’ Organisational Dynamics, Vol.16(2), 68-69
Baruch Y, Hind P (2000) ‘Survivor Syndrome – A Management Myth? Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol.15(1)
Wolfe, Helen (2004) Survivor Syndrome: ‘Key Considerations & Practical Steps’ Institute for Employment.