Leadership   //   November 15, 2022  ■  4 min read

How to navigate survivor’s guilt, in wake of layoffs

So far, November has been a bleak month in terms of company layoffs – some of them horrifyingly handled, others more standard. Meta laid off more than 11,000, Amazon is reportedly due to ax 10,000 people, and Disney is also set to begin a wave of layoffs. Meanwhile, Twitter’s workforce has been decimated under new leadership.

And it’s not just the high-profile companies. Vaping company Juul is laying off a third of its workforce, real-estate platform Redfin is laying off 13% of its workforce, digital payments giant Stripe is cutting 14% of its staff and Salesforce also laid off hundreds of employees. 

The timing – right before the holiday season – adds another layer of stress for those being let go.

And it’s no tea party for those who remain at these companies either. When colleagues, friends and managers are being let go, it leaves a collective and palpable tension, which can fester if left unchecked. Enter: survivor’s guilt.

Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, D.O, psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health, describes survivor’s guilt as “feeling guilty that you see your friends at work, your colleagues, who are losing their jobs and you’re not.” Morale is in the gutter, and people start to question why they have been allowed to stay when their coworkers – many of them friends – haven’t.

“It’s your work family,” said Patel-Dunn. “In the same way that when someone in a family isn’t doing well, it impacts everybody.”

How employers can make things easier

Carla Yudhishthu, chief people officer of HR company Mineral, argues that there are ways that employers can make layoffs less rough for employees – both the leavers and remainers. Naturally, not acting callously about announcing layoffs may reduce the scale of leaks that occur. Being highly communicative throughout the process and ready to answer questions is also key and try to avoid multiple rounds of layoffs so that trust is not eroded within a company.

“It’s giving them something immediately to know how to proceed,” said Yudhishthu. “Empathize, think about being in their shoes and all the tools they need to get through the process, which is kind of like the cycle of grief.”

How a company handles layoffs is an indicator of their values and culture. If it’s not done appropriately, it could very well make the workforce who remains question if they want to stay there themselves. 

“It’s letting them see how you lived the company’s values through this, so when they come out on the other side, they know that the company did this with the values they know to be true,” said Yudhishthu. 

For example, Stripe’s co-founders took full responsibility, apologized, provided transparency and announced a severance plan when it shared the news of the layoffs there. It also included a note directly for the employees not laid off that asked them for their patience as they navigate this change and included language like “Expect to hear more on this over the next week.”

“Whatever you want your employees to believe about you from a values and culture perspective, you still want them to believe that when this is over,” said Yudhishthu

How to fight survivor’s guilt yourself

Even if a company does do all the right things, remaining employees might still feel out of sorts, especially in situations where half of your direct team is no longer there. The good news is that things can be done to help ease these feelings and cope. 

Patel-Dunn recommends self-care practices, rebuilding confidence, reframing thoughts and talking to colleagues about how you’re feeling.

With layoffs might come anger towards an employer, she said. If you’re still there working and have a negative feeling towards work, it will eventually impact your overall motivation and satisfaction at that job. 

“You as a colleague might know a lot more about how your other colleagues are being impacted,” said Patel-Dunn. “You may know so-and-so just had started to pay back loans, or that their significant other also lost their job. There is a lot more you know on a day-to-day level about people in your immediate circle of work.”

Patel-Dunn recommends being mindful of these feelings and to take some time to unpack this and remind yourself that these are all normal reactions to a situation like layoffs. If you still have colleagues there that you are close with, it might be helpful to discuss your shared experience of surviving a layoff and the feelings that have come up with it.

“It’s okay to have a gamut of reactions, but it’s coming to terms with okay, I still have a job,” she said. “It’s helpful knowing other people are having the same feelings as you are. It helps you not feel isolated and alone.”

It’s also an opportunity to really ask yourself if it’s a job you still want to have. It’s a point of reflection, where you can consider a pivot if you’re not happy, or if you are happy, figure out ways to continue to get satisfaction out of work. That might mean scheduling a time to meet with your boss to make sure that your goals are aligned and that everyone is on the right path.