Dealing with survivor guilt at work after layoffs

Around the world, many organisations are already making posts redundant, with layoffs in the tech industry grabbing the headlines.  For those without a job, the future may not look bright, but life is unlikely to be sweet for those still in employment either.

To keep things going, they may need to put in more effort or carry out additional tasks, despite worries that their job might be next. And all of this may be made worse by survivor guilt.

What should HR know about mass redundancies?

Layoff alternatives called for as tech sector redundancies hit 200,000

How can HR ease the redundancy process?

When people survive traumatic events, they often feel guilty that they are still alive when others are not, or they may dwell obsessively and guiltily on things they could have done (but didn’t) to help save others.

Similarly, though less intense, guilt is seen in the workplace when employees are laid off. The people left behind feel guilty that they still have a job when others have lost theirs; they may believe themselves to be less worthy or less skilled than the people who have left, adding to the guilt they feel. This is one reason why employees who survive a downsizing seldom perform as well as organisations expect them to.

The last major set of redundancies that the economy experienced was during the Covid pandemic. As part of research from The Myers-Briggs Company at the time, we asked people to what extent they agreed or disagreed with these two questions:

  • I am annoyed or angry that I am still working, when others have been laid off or furloughed
  • I feel guilty about having a job, when others have been laid off or furloughed

The results showed that people were much more likely to feel guilty than to feel annoyed. Only 5% agreed or strongly agreed with the first statement, but 33% agreed or strongly agreed with the second.

A third of our participants felt survivor guilt. Not everyone was affected to the same extent; people’s personality preference for either 'thinking' or 'feeling' had a significant effect.

Individuals with a thinking preference prefer to make decisions based on objective logic, whereas those with a feeling preference prefer to make decisions based on values and on how those decisions will affect people.

Those with a feeling personality preference were significantly more likely to experience guilt than people with a thinking preference, with 44% of those with a feeling preference agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, but only 21% of those with a thinking preference.

Managers and executives are far more likely to have a thinking than a feeling personality preference and so they may be less prone to survivor guilt themselves, less likely to notice it in others, and less likely to take it seriously.

The MBTI assessment and similar tools can help managers understand how their staff may not see the world in the same way that they do, and so allow for the idea that others may be affected by survivor guilt even if they are not themselves.

It will help if managers can – if true – tell employees that that the people who were laid off were treated as well as possible, and that even if those who remain had been prepared to make sacrifices themselves, this would not have changed the outcome.

It is not a good idea to be untruthful about this; people with a feeling preference might walk away from their jobs without warning if they think their values have been compromised. And managers should try not to congratulate people on still having a job; this may just add to any guilt.

Survivor guilt is real, and it is important that organisations take it seriously.

John Hackston is a chartered psychologist and head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company