Have you found yourself waking up with a sense of guilt after having survived the latest round of cuts? Shouldn’t you be relieved and happy? After all, you still have a job. Why are you feeling so unsettled then?
What you’re experiencing is survivor’s guilt, an experience of stress after one survives a loss where others were harmed. Your job is to acknowledge it and find productive ways to cope with it.
Survivor’s guilt isn’t something people typically talk about at work. But you could. William Bridges’ book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, is a good reference. In it, he discusses his Bridges Transition Model for working through the personal and human side of change. “Ending,” the first of three stages of change and transition, relates to the loss of an old way of doing or being, and it corresponds to a drop in morale and engagement.
“This first phase of transition begins when people identify what they are losing and learn how to manage these losses,” Bridges writes. “They determine what is over and being left behind, and what they will keep. These may include relationships, processes, team members or locations.”
Have conversations with your team members about what you’ve lost, what you’ll miss, what you had hoped would happen that no longer seems like it will. These are all productive endings conversations. The more thoughtfully you can enter the wary territory of ending, the more gracefully you can move into the next stages of transition: neutral zone and new beginnings.
In the meantime, if you’re having trouble focusing, recognize that it may not be you. Layoffs are demotivating. While it seems like you and others should be working harder than ever, in part due to the simple fact that there is more work to do with fewer people, the reality is, a layoff creates a wake of chaos and inertia in an organization. People need time to talk, to share, to process what’s happened, what it means and what’s next.
If you are a leader, listen and share. Team leaders can help by listening, listening, listening. Schedule time for one-on-ones and team conversations. This will help move the trauma through your team faster. The worst thing you can do it to carry on as “normal” and ignore the elephant in the room —empty cubicles and Zoom boxes on screen. It won’t be business as usual for a while.
If you’ve survived a layoff in the past or have been laid off before yourself, be sure to share this with your team. Openness and vulnerability increase trust, especially in times of high anxiety. Share with your team how you got through the experience so they have a map of the territory they may find themselves in.
Three Things You Can Do to Cope
1. Allow yourself to feel the feelings. Don’t talk yourself or others out of it. Access self-compassion if you can. The feelings you have make sense. I use a practice from Kristen Neff, author of “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.” When I experience something that causes me to suffer, I say silently to myself, “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. I can be kind to myself and others at this time.” Kristen’s version is more polished, given her role as a self-compassion expert, but you get the idea.
2. Connect with others. Don’t be an island and suffer in silence. Sharing with other “survivors” in your team can help legitimize your experience and give others permission to feel the way they are feeling. If your experience becomes too strong for you to manage, consider finding a professional to help with support and tools.
3. Do something helpful for someone else. Growing up, whenever I was down, my mother would tell me that the way out was to help another person. I still try to remember and practice this today. It lifts me out of my own suffering and into the world. This may mean that you take the time to have coffee or a beer with a former colleague. Or that you lift someone up on LinkedIn by making a connection. Who do you know? How can you help? In fact, this question can be asked at any time: “How can I help?”
Layoffs are stressful for everyone involved. Survivor’s guilt is real and can be damaging. Acknowledge it in yourself and others so you can move back into the healthy stream of life and work on your team. You’ll be glad you did.
Previously published on Forbes