‘Survivor Syndrome’ By Jane McNeice

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With few industries immune to the effects of Covid-19, downsizing and potential redundancy threats are currently very high. Many organizations are restructuring and downsizing their workforce to weather the decline in demand for products and services and the resulting decline in income. These commitments will be essential for many companies, but what remains after that will be of equal, if not more, importance.

The remaining workforce will be your future. She will be the ones who drive and shape what your company becomes, both in terms of sustainability and culture. With this in mind, equal efforts and resources must be made to support both an effective exit for some employees and healthy psychological contracts and relationships with the remaining employees. Failure to provide effective support to remaining employees can lead to what organizational psychologists refer to as “survivor syndrome”, which is characterized by negative emotional, psychological, physical, and organizational consequences.

The emotional and psychological consequences of survivor syndrome can include grief over the loss of superfluous, negative and unhelpful thoughts, as well as feelings such as guilt, fear, anger, resentment and loss of trust in yourself and others. The physical consequences – which in any case are often linked to mental health – include tension headaches and migraines, immune system problems, stomach problems, musculoskeletal problems, and the recurrence of pre-existing physical and mental health problems. In addition, there may be an additional individual and business impact from unhelpful coping behaviors that may have evolved to deal with these and other problems, such as: Increased alcohol consumption, addiction, etc. Of course, these consequences do not exist in isolation. We employ “whole” people and these people bring these challenges to work with them. They affect the business and are felt in the following, non-exhaustive ways:

  • Poor performance and productivity
  • Increase in absence and “presenterism”
  • Risk aversion
  • Occupational safety accidents and near misses
  • Mistakes, bad decisions, and costly mistakes
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Litigation risk

It is important to understand that while there is no believed “panacea” for “survivor syndrome,” there is still much an employer can do to reduce its likelihood and / or impact. First, equally effectively serving those who are leaving the business and those who are left. Usually we see support for the redundant (or at risk) but little support for the laggard, possibly a guess that relief will be enough. It’s important to maintain the balance between the employee and the employee who wants to stay with the company and maintain a healthy psychological contract to volunteer for the coming weeks and months. This, of course, begins with a fair and transparent, well communicated redundancy process. To this end, we would like to encourage employers to follow the best practice advice and instructions from ACAS on the subject of “Managing Personnel Redundancies” and also to use the free ACAS-based employer hotline where necessary. Internal redundancy policies must also be fair, robust and comply with the latest labor law in this area.

Assuming the employer is carrying out the process correctly – legally, fairly, transparently, and well communicated – we are on an optimal platform to ensure that survivor syndrome is minimized. But here, too, there is a lot to consider, for example the effects of the “survivor syndrome” on different groups of employees, e. Gender, age, ethnicity, people with disabilities and other aspects of diversity and identity. First, it’s important to provide the remaining employees with the same level of listening, understanding, and empathy that you offered to those who are leaving the company. The emphasis here is on listening to understand rather than listening to answer or pre-judging solutions – your solution may not be your solution to any difficulty. Employees have views on the impact of capacity losses and may have ideas on how to secure the future of the company to prevent further job losses. These can be new ideas, products and services or change systems and processes to become more efficient and cost-effective. Some of these may have already been discussed during the redundancy process, but new considerations keep emerging and the time to think about it may have sparked additional ideas from the team. It is important not to incur unnecessary expenses and to seriously examine the adequacy of the employee bonus systems after the layoff, especially if the timing of the rewards is in the immediate vicinity of the loss of redundancy (s).

The remaining team needs to feel and be supported effectively. Therefore, every well-being capability of the organization may need to be considered, including those who have assumed certain support roles. This can play the role of:

If there has been a loss of capacity in other areas, then there may have been a loss of capacity in those areas that need to be rebuilt in the remaining workforce, or it is a new support role that the company has taken on after the process or in the light of Covid-19 yourself. If the employer has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), it is important to determine what current level of service the EAP provides and how employees can access it. EAPs are notoriously underutilized for several non-exhaustive reasons:

  • Knowing that they even exist or that the company has that offer
  • Knowledge of the offers of the EAP
  • Know how and who can access EAP services (some EAP benefits may extend to family members as well)
  • Assurances about the confidentiality of the services – particularly due to redundancy where there may be concerns that disclosure of a health issue could result in them being selected for future redundancies should they arise – although that would of course be illegal, we would like perceptions too manage. When there is a stigma around a health problem, e.g. Mental illness can make such thoughts worse. Mental health awareness programs can help address the stigma in the workplace and in the community about mental health.
  • Believing that the service is ineffective or cannot help them.

Direct and open communication must continue. This may include staying in touch with former employees, some of whom may return to the business if future prospects change, especially if relationships remain healthy and communicative. Employees come and go for a variety of reasons, not just being laid off, but they can affect your business well beyond their employment contract. You’re taking your culture elsewhere and potentially keeping in touch with customers and other stakeholders. Indeed, you remain a stakeholder of your company yourself as you can continue to shape it from the outside, sometimes very substantially and not always positively. I myself am still shaped by my own employment history and the industries and sectors in which I have worked. I’m influenced by the best practices I’ve come across, and the worst too. Think of “exit interviews” and the valuable information you can gather from them. Such information can also be used as part of the future vision and strategy. Therefore, it is also valuable here to encourage open discussions and feedback.


Appelbaum, S.H., Simpson, R. & Shapiro BT (1987) “The Tough Test of Downsizing” Organizational 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: Institute for Employment “Important Considerations and Practical Steps”

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