According to AHRI’s Quarterly Australian Work Outlook report, redundancy intentions have risen sharply to 31% in the December 2023 quarter from 17% in the September quarter. AHRI shares that there is, however, a large variation across sectors and industries.
In 2024, there continues to be complex issues and pressures for organisations to navigate; which in some instances is resulting in employers making the difficult decision to instigate redundancies. We may have moved on from the global pandemic, but there is no doubt that many workers still feel the ‘hangover’ from the worry and concern of keeping their jobs. Adding to job security concerns, the report also shares that 51% of employees cited ‘cost of living pressures’ to be their biggest driver of stress.
In many organisations, employees have built unique and long lasting bonds with fellow workers over what has unquestionably been a challenging few years. Employers may feel that unaffected team members are fine, but there can be a whole range of complex emotions to navigate when you are ‘safe’ while your close work mate is busy packing up their desk. Enter ‘Survivor Guilt’.
'Survivor Guilt' is a feeling of guilt or shame that one has survived a traumatic event while others did not. It is often associated with feelings of self-blame, unworthiness and a sense of responsibility for the event. In the context of redundancy, survivor guilt may arise when an employee is being spared from being impacted while their work colleagues are not.
‘Survivor Syndrome’ describes the physical, emotional and psychological impact of surviving a significant event. In the context of redundancies, it may be relevant to the remaining employees who didn’t lose their jobs or experience a significant role change. It is a term coined by organisational psychologists where typically the syndrome creates a set of behaviours, emotions and attitudes that can negatively affect both the employee and the business. It can present differently in workers, but some employees that ‘survive’ job cuts will suffer from feelings normally experienced by those who survived major traumas or disasters.
Survivor syndrome is a broader term than survivor guilt and it encompasses a range or psychological and emotional responses to a traumatic event. It can include feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Survivor syndrome may manifest in a variety of ways, including reduced work commitment to work, low morale and increased stress and anxiety.
It is in the best interest of the organisation to actively and authentically support remaining employees to minimise the implications on productivity, stress levels, engagement and absenteeism.
‘Survivor syndrome’ is an individual experience, however the below captures some of the emotions experienced.
Relief is usually the first emotion that a redundancy ‘survivor’ will feel. It is natural to take a deep breath and think “I’m so glad it wasn’t me”. That feeling of relief may not last too long as employees start to see how it is impacting their friends and peers around them.
Many organisations will believe that employees left behind will be relieved or grateful to still have a job. It is true that they may feel grateful and relieved, but it is more likely that they will be feeling guilty – particularly if some of their friends and close peers have been impacted.
It is recommended that HR or leaders speak to employees about this feeling and support them by listening, validating and providing some tools and advice to help them through.
Loss of self confidence
Redundancies can have employees questioning why they survived, and the thought process might turn to negative internal dialogue doubting if they are good enough. This is particularly true if a survivor believes that an employee who was impacted was more experienced or smarter than them.
Once the impacted employees have left the business, there can be a ‘hangover’ period where existing employees are faced with learning new tasks, increasing their workloads, adapting to new job descriptions or picking up extra responsibility. This can lead to resentment if employees are not adequately supported through this stage
Watching friends and peers experience redundancy can send a shock wave through the organisation. Even employees that have been told they are ‘safe’ will be worried about how long it will be before the next round will commence.
A well thought out and executed plan will go a long way to care for the emotional and psychological health of remaining employees. The following highlights five steps for employers to minimise the impact on ‘survivors’ throughout the redundancy period:
Don’t allow employees to hear about an organisation’s redundancies at the water cooler. Failing to instigate a clear communication plan is dangerous as the message becomes unclear, contradictory and quite often emotionally charged. It also spreads fear amongst employees that will not be impacted. A plan does not change the outcome, but clarity, authenticity and transparency build trust and show all employees the employer is acting with integrity.
HR professionals and leaders should be prepared for an emotional response from employees who ‘survive’. This can be very challenging; however, it is important to remember that this is not a personal attack. It is recommended that support is provided to the person(s) that are responsible for delivering the news or managing the remaining employees as this can be very draining.
One of the key reasons that communication remains critical is that surviving employees can have a sense of “When will it happen again?”. It is also not uncommon for employees that survive a restructure to begin to look for alternative employment as they want to ‘get out before they lose their job’. Alternatively, they want to leave because they do not agree with the business decision. Constant communication and engagement helps to keep employees focused on their future in the business.
Survivors may ask questions such as: “Why not me?” and find it difficult from a psychological point of view to move forward – leaving them feeling ‘stuck’. Managers can ensure that employees left behind are fully supported by making them aware of the company Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or counselling service. If the organisation does not have an EAP program, short term support services can be organised in house or an employer can offer to reimburse an employee for seeking some external support.
Leaders and HR professionals need to be approachable, visible and honest to their teams during this difficult time in order to build and maintain trust. Involving survivors in the plan to rebuild the business or pivot the offering is critical as it engages forward thinking and positive reframing. Be brave enough to ask how your workers are; and then have the courage to listen.
The emotional weight for an employer to trigger redundancy can be suffocating but leaders and HR professionals have long understood that as custodians of the business, redundancy is a necessary part of their role. The weight of the redundancy conversation is high and it can remain for quite some time. Organisations are encouraged to acknowledge and support those armed with the difficult task of advising impacted employees.
It is important to remember that as HR professionals, we often can’t stop the redundancy wheels in motion, but we can choose ‘how’ we deliver these life changing discussions and support those who remain.
For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300556677 for further information. Ai Group has extensive resources to support members with their redundancy planning. Employers are encouraged to contact Ai Group for specialist advice prior to commencing their redundancy process to ensure best practice and industrial compliance.
Take advantage of more than 150 years of experience actively solving Members’ workplace issues and representing their interests at the highest levels of national and state government. Being a Member of Ai Group makes good business sense. Call us on 1300 55 66 77 or visit our Why join page to sign up for a consultation with one of our member representatives.
Georgina is Senior HR Content Editor – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.