What is Workplace Survivor Syndrome?

What is Workplace Survivor Syndrome?

When organizations ‘let people go’, the ‘lucky ones’ left behind can be affected profoundly, often referred to as survivor guilt. Survivor guilt has been well researched in terms of people experiencing a traumatic event or a loss in their lives.

Organizational psychologists have also noticed that this occurs within organizations when people are being made redundant during job restructuring and being one of the ‘lucky ones’ left behind. Research shows that it can be, and often is, as hard on those left behind as those who have been retrenched. This is referred to as workplace survivor syndrome.

Workplace survivor syndrome is a psychological, emotional, and physical response when a person believes that they have done something wrong in surviving retrenchment when others haven’t, leaving them with a feeling of self-guilt. Many studies show that those left behind can find it difficult. They display an increase in alcohol consumption, smoking, and workplace injury, and other studies show an effect on mental health, with reports of depression, poor morale, and reduction in productivity.

In a study by Noer (1993), reactions to workforce reduction identified several key behaviors experienced by workplace survivors:

What is Workplace Survivor Syndrome?

One of the effects of surviving workplace organizational downsizing is a feeling of grief. There is more than one form of grief, and this can be both at the individual and organizational levels. On an organizational level, it can often be difficult to identify the effects easily. 

Organizational grief shows itself in the form of behaviors related to breaches in organizational trust and commitment, for example, destructive types of behavior such as reduced engagement. Those that are left behind can have a form of anticipatory grief (expecting to be next) on an individual level that can be unhealthy and lead to anxiety. 

This sense of grief and loss is a normal reaction to the changes and can be due to the whole reorganizational process causing confusion and disorientation. There can also be a lack of closure when workplace friends and colleagues are let go, with those left behind losing office friends and close working partners. The time following these layoffs can be very depressing.

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The survivor guilt is a confusing feeling of relief that it wasn’t them being laid off, plus, a sense of grief for their friends and colleagues who do not have a job. This is often accompanied by the feeling they didn’t deserve to be saved, leading to guilt. This feeling of relief and happiness for not being let go has a simultaneous effect of guilt for feeling happy; leading to what psychologists refer to as a toxic mental state.

Destructive and constructive types of survivors

What is Workplace Survivor Syndrome?

Based on the reaction and responses to layoffs, Neves (2014) discussed two types of surviving employees – destructive survivors and constructive survivors. While destructive survivors focus on the negative aspect of downsizing, constructive survivors focus on the positive side of layoffs. 

Destructive survivors perceive the redundancy process as a threat to their job security; hence, their unwillingness to support management as it implements change in the organization (Waraich & Bhardwarj, 2012). Often, destructive survivors portray fear and pessimism towards the reduction process, a perception that negatively impacts their productivity. 

Constructive survivors do not perceive the reduction process as a threat to their job and, therefore, support management by actively taking part in training and team building programs to gain knowledge on how to cope with the realignments (Neves, 2014).

These types of reactions can be demonstrated within the workplace in several different ways:

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Time Wasting

One of the side effects of survivor guilt syndrome is time-wasting. This happens in one of two ways:

  • Employees can be either frozen or anxious, and because they become overwhelmed with the fear that they may be next, they become less productive
  • There is also the effect that employees are working longer hours than before but get less done. They will get their heads down and become invisible in case another round of redundancies is imminent. They will do as they are told, but the commitment to the organization can be lost, with a lack of motivation to work hard and do good work

This disengagement is one of the greatest consequences of layoffs and leads to a workforce of, what has been described as, the ‘living dead.

Workers in overdrive

This is also a time when you have the employee who sees redundancies as positive for advancing their career and be driven by success and accomplishing goals:

  • Employees can feel that they are more valued by the company than those that have been let go
  • They believe that fewer colleagues lead to less competition
  • They feel anger and resentment if they are overloaded with work and don’t feel as if they have been compensated fairly

If they experience poor management, frustration will build up and may cause them to move organizations.

Employees applying for other jobs

  • Workers who are worried and uncertain about their future can panic after layoffs, leading them to look for other jobs and/or leave the organization
  • Research shows that the effect of a longer-term feeling of vulnerability for workers, during the lead up to redundancies and the settling down post layoffs, can be worse psychologically than for those who were let go

One of the effects of this is that, if employees feel a sense of long-lasting panic, this can lead them to act out or seek an escape after work hours, e.g., alcohol.

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Panic after losing a manager

  • If an employee has lost their line manager, the confusion that occurs can lead to them losing trust in the company and the person who will take over that role. This can result in feeling a need for more direction and security.
  • They will seek an authority figure to latch onto or find a false sense of security from, and perhaps to listen to, as well as spread, gossip

This breach is often referred to as a breach in the psychological contract. The psychological contract refers to the unwritten set of expectations of the employment relationship, distinct from the formal employment contracts. 

If an employee is moved into a new team due to downsizing, where two teams are no longer viable, then they can feel that this is unfair wanting to know why it was them, particularly if they are not consulted about the move. Taken together, the psychological contract and the employment contract define the employer-employee relationship.

What can you do if you find yourself in this position?

One of the main coping strategies is to remain calm and not panic; Recognise that these above reactions often occur when redundancies happen.

Recognize that ‘survivor guilt’ is normal and consider ways to develop coping strategies that allow a sense of doing well, even in the smallest of things for example consider yourself in the position as a valued employee and that this will allow you to upskill.

It is important that this is recognized as a form of grief; therefore, allow the grief process to carry itself out. Look for any possible opportunities that may become available, and best of all, avoid office gossip about further cuts.


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