Survivor Syndrome and Redundancy - Supporting those left behind
With a growing number of organisations going through a period of change due to declining profits, increased global competition and tightening labor markets, the ‘r’ words are once again at the forefront of Executive and HR leaders’ minds; restructure and redundancy. Many companies invest considerable time, effort and expenditure into supporting the exit of staff being made redundant. However, there is often a neglected stakeholder during restructure process; the people left behind.
‘Survivor syndrome’ is often experienced by people who remain employed or ‘survive’ a redundancy process, and refers to the emotional, psychological and organisational repercussions felt because of down-sizing and restructuring. Initially, research into survivor syndrome was conducted by Niederland (1968) focusing on survivors of the Holocaust. Research suggested that these people experienced fear of persecution, inner tension, diminished self-esteem, lack of initiative, a sense of guilt and a lack of closure for having survived such a traumatic event. However, research in 1993 by Noer found that survivors of restructures display a similar range of emotional and behavioural responses, albeit less intense and severe. Indeed, we can think of an organisational restructure as like a traumatic life event- there are feelings of uncertainty, unpredictability, guilt, fear, and unfairness.
There is also widespread agreement about the challenge it poses to HR functions and the organisation as a whole. Relief is usually the initial feeling of those who survive a redundancy, however, this can quickly give way to anger, worry about future redundancies and resentment at having to pick up additional work (Simmons, 2009). This can lead to impaired productivity, lack of trust and organizational commitment.
So, how can organisations ensure existing employees are taken care of following a restructure or resizing period?
Communication is key
Advanced notification of changes in roles can help with organisational trust and commitment during the change process. Hence, transparency with employees is critical. Communicating to teams the criteria and decision making for restructures and redundancy helps to alleviate worker insecurity. Additionally, the fair and appropriate selection of those being made redundant has been shown to increase the perception of fairness and justice, and in turn, build trust in leadership (Ward, 2009).
Re-draft the psychological contract
Redundancies often mean that workers are required to take on additional duties usually attended to by those workers that have now left. This can lead survivors to feel over-worked, under appreciated, resentful and under resourced. A collaborative approach, that acknowledges the pressures and effort, is required when restructuring the psychological contract between the survivor and the organization. This process ensures that employees understand any changes to their role, responsibilities or performance standards.
Engage, develop and support the survivors
With organisational performance at risk following a restructure, there is a need to focus on supporting the survivors to reach their potential. Retention strategies are aimed at learning and talent development as this can help to increase employee self-confidence. Survivors are also likely to appreciate the confirmation of no further redundancies, providing security and certainty to their roles. By leveraging their strengths and ensuring that survivors are adequately trained for their new role responsibilities, greater performance and satisfaction can be supported (Glide, 2020).
Chandler Macleod People Insights offers both individual, team and organisational support as well as organisational wide change projects. For more information, please email us at CMPIenquiries@chandlermacleod.com or call 1300 664 305.
Glide Outplacement. (2020). Coping with redundancies when you’ve kept your job. Retrieved from: https://www.outplacement.net.au/blog/coping-with-redundancies-when-you-ve-kept-your-job/
Niederland, W. G. (1968). Clinical observations on the "survivor syndrome." The International
Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49(2-3), 313–315.
Niederland, W. G. (1981). The Survivor Syndrome: Further Observations and Dimensions. Journal
of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 29(2), 413–425. https://doi.org/10.1177/000306518102900207
Noer, D. M. (1993). Healing the wounds- overcoming the trauma of layoffs and revitalising downsized organisations. Jossey Bass, San Franciso.
Simmons, K. (2009). Understanding the impact on survivors. Retrieved from https://www.lhh.com/lhhpenna/en/our-knowledge/2019/underestimating
Ward, T. (2009). Survivor Guilt: Examining the effect a redundancy situation can have on the psychological contract for
those employees left behind. Retrieved from: http://trap.ncirl.ie/460/4/Tracy_Ward.pdf
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