Is Workplace Survivor Syndrome the Next Big Challenge for Australian Business?

How can businesses best protect their employees in post-JobKeeper Australia? We discuss the challenges that surviving redundancies can place on company culture and morale.

Managing Redundancy and Survivor Syndrome: What Can Businesses Do?

Just past the half-way mark, 2020 has already proven itself to be an unforgettable year. Australians have witnessed much of the country burn like never before, a pandemic sweep the globe, and economic downturn affect millions throughout the world. You only need to tune into the radio, television or social media to see the latest statistics on COVID-19, the unemployment rate, or the federal and state governments’ most recent communications on restrictions. For many directors, managers and board executives, their gaze is becoming increasingly more focused on the conclusion of JobKeeper payments—the Federal Government’s fortnightly $1500 currently helping businesses to avoid considering employee redundancy while turnover dwindles. 

With the first of the JobKeeper payments confirmed to finish 20 July for particular industries, (and with others under scrutiny to end before the original September end date), some directors have come to the realisation that redundancies may be the only feasible option for their business. But for astute executives who have already witnessed damage to public and private spheres and are thinking ahead to what this could mean for business in general, there is another question in mind: how do we keep those remaining employees engaged and guilt-free?

Survivor Syndrome in the workplace—yes, it’s really a ‘thing’

Survivor syndrome theory has been around for decades. Also known as survivor guilt, survivor syndrome is the emotional reaction to surviving a trauma or particularly distressing event when others did not. Many of us would understand this in the context of physical trauma: events such as a plane or train crash, a volcanic eruption or bushfire. Survivors of such an event may question how they came through with only a scratch or burn when the person two seats away succumbed to their injuries after days on life support. 

However, survivor syndrome doesn’t just relate to physical trauma. Survivor syndrome in the workplace has been observed during times of recession or downturn; where companies have been restructured, redundancies have been handed to employees. Of course, those on the receiving end of a redundancy have to deal with significant personal and professional change, but the employees who remain in the business also have considerable changes to contend with—and this can have a major impact on the company and its culture. 

In 1999, Stephen Robbins named ‘survivor sickness’ as an element of organisational behaviour that needed further study. It had already been discovered that employees retaining their jobs suffered similar feelings (in particular loss and anxiety) to those who had been retrenched. It can easily be understood how those who remain in employment but see colleagues and friends lose their jobs would feel a deep sense of loss, as well as anxiety around their own continuing employment. These feelings can result in a culture of dejectedness and lowered productivity:

  • decrease in morale
  • decrease in productivity
  • increase in absenteeism
  • increase in turnover

How is this relevant to current Australian businesses?

Move forward 20 years to the current pandemic situation and there are more concerns when it comes to survivor syndrome in the workplace. Many employees are continuing to work remotely and so there is already a sense of social isolation from the workplace. With the reduction of government-funded wage assistance drawing closer, the potential for mass redundancies throughout many industries is very real. So the need for managers and executives to consider the impact redundancies will have on the surviving staff is more important than ever. 

A study by Vinten and Lane (2002) can give some insight into how to avoid a culture of negativity following retrenchments. The study was based on interviews of 200 staff from private and public businesses: there were managers ‘giving the bad news’, staff who had received redundancies, and staff who had maintained their employment. Across all interviews and industries, three distinct themes emerged relating to:

  1. sense of loss (relating to morale and loss of motivation for a joint vision/mission; loss of colleagueship/friendship)
  2. sense of realism (relating to the perceptions of how the redundancy processes were handled despite being necessary under the circumstances)
  3. sense of support (relating to the support given to staff and by whom, i.e. internal versus external providers)

These themes clearly showed that the ‘pain’ of redundancy was felt across all levels of a business. Linking these study outcomes to the current business environment, for management teams contemplating how the cessation of the JobKeeper subsidy is going to affect staff morale (as well as their bottom line) the emphasis should be on implementing a system to support employees who receive redundancies as well as those who are retained in the business.

How helping those who leave supports those left behind

One of the simplest ways to support all staff is to provide an outplacement program—a service paid for by the company and provided to exiting employees. When considering the themes of survivor syndrome in the workplace, it’s clear that an outplacement program will support all three levels of those affected.

Exiting staff

An outplacement program can assist the exiting staff members to find suitable employment, often through personalised sessions focusing on pre-employment skills (such as resume and interview preparation), personal skills (such as time management or building resilience) and professional development (specific upskilling courses). Despite the initial loss of employment, this provides support networks for those staff members and allows them to focus on prospective job opportunities and regain confidence, self-esteem and, ultimately, employment. 

HR and management

As executives, and particularly for those in human resource management roles, senior managers are often faced with the burden of ‘giving the bad news’ to colleagues who they have worked with for years, and who may have become friends. This takes an emotional toll for these key managers and can lead to reducing staff morale even further. The opportunity to provide practical assistance for exiting staff reduces the sense of loss and increases the sense of support for all involved. It also helps to combat survivor syndrome in the workplace by providing an open and transparent communication line between management and those who remain in employment.

Remaining staff

It can be easy to comprehend the company’s decisions based on finances, but when exiting staff are treated poorly, remaining staff may question their company loyalty: ‘Why should I work so hard if I’m going to be treated like that?’ This is when anxiety can increase around the ability to maintain employment—particularly when a government-funded scheme hangs in the balance. By offering exiting staff an outplacement program, your company is reaffirming that it values its employees and will continue to support them through difficult times. As noted above, it also lays the framework for continued communication with senior managers and human resource managers, reducing anxiety and promoting a positive company culture.

The research backs positive action

In ‘A Positive Policy? Corporate Perspectives of Redundancy and Outplacement’, the authors recognised that outplacement programs “can implement the change with as little trauma as possible to both departing and remaining employees”. With mental health continuing to be a significant focus in our personal and professional lives, the provision of an outplacement service for exiting employees is a supportive and practical response in a time of uncertainty. It clearly indicates to remaining employees the value placed on the company’s ‘human resources’ and is bound to reduce stress and anxiety for all parties within your business. 

 Let’s Talk Career is undertaking Australian research on:

1/. how redundancies in an organisation may impact the remaining (or surviving) employees and management, and

2/. where there is negative impact, what factors, actions and interventions may reduce this.

Take the survey here


About this survey:
This survey takes only 5 minutes to complete.

  • Your answers are anonymous.
  • The raw data will be collated into group data and all your information will be made unidentifiable.
  • We will publish the results of this survey on our website.

Discover how our outplacement services can assist both exiting employees and those surviving redundancies. Contact us today!

Vinten, G & Lane, DA, 2002. ‘Counselling remaining employees in redundancy situations’
Doherty et al.1993. ‘A Positive Policy? Corporate Perspectives of Redundancy and Outplacement’
Kris has over 20 years executive HR and executive coaching experience in Australian corporates. With a Masters Degree in Leadership, she works with senior executives to both improve their leadership performance and achieve greater career satisfaction.

Author: Kris

Kris has over 20 years executive HR and executive coaching experience in Australian corporates. With a Masters Degree in Leadership, she works with senior executives to both improve their leadership performance and achieve greater career satisfaction.

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