Beyond Layoffs: Confronting Survivor's Guilt & the Trust Crisis at Work

Have you noticed your social feeds are flooded with "new year, new job" posts? Yeah, me too. But here's the kicker: while some are jumping ship to fancier gigs, a ton of people were unceremoniously booted off theirs in 2023. 

I was thinking about this especially in my line of work, PR and comms, where I saw so many talented journalists laid off in 2023 who are now announcing new jobs at new companies in 2024. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it - happy for them, but… - and then I saw a post from Kat Kibben that really stopped me in my tracks.

They’re absolutely right. So let’s talk about it.

2023 Layoff Lowdown

So, here’s the sitch: 2023 was like a layoff apocalypse. No joke, companies were axing jobs faster than you can say "restructuring." It felt like every other day, there was news about some big corp slashing their workforce. And let’s talk numbers 'cause they paint a pretty stark picture. The following is from Zippia​​, Demand Sage​​, and TechCrunch​​.

  • In 2023, over 218,110 layoffs were reported, marking a significant impact across various industries. This figure is a stark contrast to previous years, showcasing the volatile nature of the job market. 
  • The tech industry was particularly hard-hit the last two years, with 142,942 people laid off from tech companies in 2022 alone. The retail industry experienced the highest number of layoffs, while consumer industries also faced significant cuts.
  • Looking at the broader picture, layoffs have been a common occurrence over the years. For example, in 2022, there were 15.4 million layoffs in the United States, a decrease from the staggering 41.7 million in 2020 but still a high number. The layoff trend has been shifting, with different industries and regions experiencing varying impacts.

Thousands of peeps found themselves updating their LinkedIn with the dreaded #OpenToWork.

But here's the real kicker: it wasn’t just about cutting costs. Some of these companies were still making bank, yet they chose to thin the herd. The reason? Future-proofing, optimizing, or some other corporate buzzword that basically means "Let’s do more with less."

This game of corporate musical chairs left a lot of us feeling uneasy. Imagine sipping your morning coffee, scrolling through your emails, and then bam – half your team’s gone. It's unsettling, to say the least. And for those of us still in the game, we’re left wondering: 

Are we next?

But it's not just job security that's taken a hit. It's also about the vibe at work. The whole dynamic changes. There’s this cloud of uncertainty and, let’s be real, a bit of survivor’s guilt too. It's like you're relieved to still have a job, but you’re also side-eyeing your laptop, wondering when it's going to turn on you.

Check out this data from Glassdoor, for instance, which details the impact layoffs have on employee satisfaction and morale.

And sure, economists and analysts will throw around terms like "market correction" and "economic downturn," but that doesn't really cut it when you're watching your work friends pack up their desks (IRL or virtually).

So, what’s next? How do we deal with this new, slightly more paranoid version of our work life? More importantly, how do we make sense of this corporate chaos that's left so many of us reeling?

Survivor’s Guilt in Corporate America

Here's where it gets real. If you still have your job post-layoff, welcome to the club of mixed emotions. It's a weird cocktail of relief and guilt, and trust me, it's more common than you think. 

You're probably sitting there with your morning coffee, thinking, “Yay, I'm still employed,” but then there's this nagging voice in your head asking, “Damn, why them and not me?”

This survivor’s guilt thing is no joke. It's a mental tug-of-war. On one side, there’s gratitude for still having a paycheck, but on the other, there's this heavy feeling for your colleagues who weren't so lucky. It's a rollercoaster of emotions – “I’m grateful” and “This sucks for them” – and honestly, it's a lot to process.

The psychology behind this is pretty fascinating. Survivor's guilt, traditionally linked to traumatic events, has found a new home in corporate settings. It stems from the idea that we, as humans, have an innate sense of fairness and empathy. When layoffs happen, especially in a seemingly random or unfair manner, it strikes a chord. You start to question the 'why' and 'how' - Why were they laid off and not me? How come I'm safe when they were just as deserving?

It gets more complicated (ya know because nothing is ever simple). This guilt can subtly morph into fear and anxiety about your own job security. It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop. You start to wonder, “Am I next?” And let’s not forget the added pressure of potentially increased workloads or the unspoken expectation to be 'grateful' you still have a job (gross, btw), which can lead to feelings of being trapped or burnt out.

Then there's the impact on your relationship with your employer. Trust takes a hit. Even if the layoffs were explained as a 'necessary evil' (BS if you ask me) it's hard to shake off the feeling of being just a number, expendable at the next financial hiccup. It's this constant battle between understanding the business side of things and grappling with the emotional fallout.

So, what can you do if you're riding this emotional seesaw?

First, know that what you're feeling is normal and valid. It's okay to be relieved, and it's okay to feel sad or guilty. Acknowledging these emotions is the first step. Talking about it helps too – whether it's with a trusted colleague who understands the situation or a professional if the feelings are overwhelming. And remember, it’s okay to set boundaries, especially when it comes to workload and work-life balance.

Survivor’s guilt in the workplace is an under-discussed phenomenon, but it's real, and it's okay to talk about it. It's part of navigating the complex world of layoffs and what comes after. As we move forward, let's open up more about these experiences and support each other through them. After all, we're all in this together.

Trust Issues 101

Post-layoff work life is like a reality show where trust is the first casualty. The moment the layoff news breaks, it's like a switch flips. The trust that took years to build between employees and management? Yeah, that starts to crumble.

It's not just about the layoffs themselves. It's the how and the why that digs deep. Often, the process feels impersonal, hush-hush, maybe even arbitrary. You start to wonder, “Could I be next?” And this thought lingers, creating a rift between you and the people who made those decisions.

Then there's the communication part – or the lack of it. If your workplace wasn’t big on transparency before, post-layoff scenarios can feel like you’re in the dark, trying to find your way with a flickering flashlight. Leadership might throw around phrases like "strategic realignment" or "optimizing operations," but without clear, honest communication, these just sound like empty corporate speak. Employees start to read between the lines and let's be honest, what they're reading isn’t exactly positive.

The impact of broken trust goes beyond just feelings. It affects productivity and loyalty. Imagine trying to give your best when you’re not even sure if your job will exist next month. Or grappling with the guilt of surviving the cut while being asked to cheerlead for the company’s new direction (which often feels disingenuous). It's an emotional tug-of-war where job satisfaction starts to nosedive.

Okay, let’s be real though. Sometimes layoffs are genuinely for the company's survival. The problem is, without proper handling, the message gets lost in translation. The aftermath is a workforce that's not only smaller but more skeptical and cautious.

So, can this trust be rebuilt? It’s tough but not impossible.

It starts with acknowledging the damage done and understanding the emotional turmoil employees are going through. Open, frequent communication is key – not just as a one-off but as a new standard. It’s about showing empathy, offering support, and involving employees in the rebuilding process.

And for you, surviving in this trust-challenged environment? It’s about finding your footing. Rebuilding trust is a two-way street. While you wait for the management to do their part, focus on what you can control. Stay connected with your colleagues, seek clarity on your role and future, and don’t shy away from voicing your concerns.

Remember, it's okay to feel unsettled. Trust is fragile, and once broken, it requires time and consistent effort to mend. But with open dialogue and a genuine effort from both sides, a new foundation can be laid – one that’s hopefully stronger and more resilient.

Fixing Broken Bridges

Now, let's talk about fixing what's broken – rebuilding trust after a wave of layoffs. The section you, my HR friends, were waiting for. 

It’s like trying to patch up a cracked vase; it can hold water again, but the cracks will always show. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort.

First up, transparency is the name of the game. This isn’t just about being open about why the layoffs happened; it’s about keeping the communication lines open moving forward. When employees understand the 'why' behind big decisions, it helps them feel valued and respected. It’s like giving someone a map in a maze – suddenly, they can navigate better.

Next, leadership needs to step up – and I mean really step up. This is where empathetic leadership plays a crucial role. Leaders should acknowledge the emotional impact of layoffs, not just brush it off as 'business as usual.' They need to be present, approachable, and genuinely invested in the well-being of their employees. Think town hall meetings, one-on-ones, and regular check-ins. And if they’re out there doing interviews about how this isn’t a big deal, the company is resilient, and everyone will be just fine – your PR team needs to rein them in. Not a good look.

Creating a participative environment is also key. Give employees a voice in shaping the future. This could be through feedback surveys, suggestion boxes, or committees. When people have a say in decisions that affect them, they’re more likely to buy into the vision of the company.

Then there’s the aspect of support – both professional and emotional. Offer resources like career development programs, mental health support, and team-building activities. When employees feel supported, they’re more likely to reciprocate with loyalty and engagement.

But what about you the employee navigating this? Because HR peeps are employees, too. Well, it's about finding balance. Be open to changes, but also set boundaries to protect your well-being. Engage with the rebuilding process, but also be realistic about your expectations.

Rebuilding trust is a slow process; it’s not going to happen overnight, especially when employees inherently distrust HR. It requires consistent effort, patience, and a commitment to change from both management and employees. The goal is to emerge not just as a surviving company, but as a thriving one, with a workforce that feels heard, valued, and secure.

In the end, whether or not this trust can be fully restored depends on a multitude of factors, including the depth of the breach and the effort put into mending it. But with the right approach, it's possible to turn a broken situation into an opportunity for growth and positive change.

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