The hard side of change: emotional strain for those who remain

Organisational Change
Paul Slezak

Many years ago, I was watching a documentary about the Titanic and in particular one of the passengers who managed to escape into one of the last remaining life rafts. For most of his interview, the survivor seemed to just stare into the camera before asking, “why?”. He wasn’t asking why the ‘unsinkable’ ship had sunk. He was, in fact, asking why he had been chosen to survive.

Years later, I was interviewing a candidate (not for a documentary but for a job) and I asked him to give me an example of a time he had overcome a work-related challenge. As a recruiter I would typically ask this question several times every day so I was startled when he went quite pale and asked if he could have a few moments to gather his thoughts. He then explained that it was exactly 10 years to the day since he was traveling back to Australia from a business trip in the USA. He had been on board United Airlines flight 811 on February 24th, 1989, when a cargo door had blown out and 9 passengers had died.  

He then told me how he had agreed to swap seats with one of his colleagues who had asked to sit by the window and who ended up being ejected from the plane following the explosion. My candidate wanted to share this work-related challenge even though he admitted that he had never really overcome it. He then shared how every day he, too, questioned why he had been chosen to survive.

On September 12th, 2001 (here in Australia), I can vividly remember finally getting through to a friend living in New York. When she answered the phone, I was so relieved since I knew her office was in one of the Twin Towers. She told me one of her kids had woken up with gastro, so she hadn’t gone into the office. She worked for Cantor Fitzgerald – a company that lost every single employee who had shown up for work on the morning of September 11th. A few months later, Elena told me she was suffering badly from ‘survivors’ guilt’. It was the first time I had ever heard that phrase …

… Until just before my father’s mother, at age of 103, in one of our final conversations before she passed away, used it, too. She shared that she had suffered from ‘survivors’ guilt’ for nearly 75 years, since her entire family (including her parents and eight siblings) had fallen victim to the atrocities of the Second World War in Eastern Europe.

I recently read an email from one of my colleagues who mentioned ‘survivors’ guilt’ in the context of organisational restructures. As I read her email, the four stories I have just shared came vividly to mind, prompting me to share some thoughts on an often-forgotten side of redundancy.

How organisations prepare for redundancies

For the most part, organisations spend sufficient time preparing for redundancies – specifically from the perspective of both those who will be delivering the news as well as obviously the impacted employees.

In fact, when we partner with organisations going through a transformation, we support them with pre-announcement support (managing effective separation training for line managers and HR staff); on-site notification support (managing the impact on affected employees including immediate contact following notification); and career transition support (with programs specifically designed to help exiting staff find new career pathways after their separation).

Having said that, it’s rare to encounter a company that will consciously focus on the remaining staff as part of their transformation program to ensure their well-being once they have watched their friends and colleagues walk out the door.

Why have I kept my job while they’ve all lost theirs?” is guaranteed to be a thought crossing the minds of those not directly impacted (per se) by the changes.

Whether we call it ‘survivors’ guilt’ or ‘survivors’ syndrome’, part of any overarching career transition program should include providing support to the staff left in team or in the business.

Aside from “why them and not me?”, the ‘survivors’ are bound to experience increased stress levels perhaps around new workloads, but more likely waking up and coming into the office every morning worried about “will I be next?” or “will there be another round of redundancies?”.

Uncertainty. Shock. Anxiety. Panic. Anger. Remorse … and of course guilt.

These are not only emotions felt by the impacted employees. Besides, if you are providing a career transition program to these employees as part of their redundancy, then they will have an experienced coach to help them manage and work through these emotions.

What about providing the survivors with a sounding board, too? Perhaps an opportunity to speak to a professional so they can confidentially share their emotional challenges from the perspective of a ‘stayer’.

If you aren’t in a position to provide external support to the survivors following a restructure, then as a leader in the business, you need to be more ‘present’ during times of transformation; focusing on morale; fostering a culture of success and motivation; and hopefully preventing unnecessary resignations that often follow redundancies.

Whilst you might not think remaining in a business after a restructure could possibly be compared to surviving a war, a terrorist attack, an explosion 30,000 feet above the Pacific, or a shipwreck, perhaps put yourself in the position of your remaining employees for a moment.  

Uncertainty in the workplace (also often referred to as ‘occupational anxiety’) isn’t healthy.

Organisational transformations can also have a major impact on those remaining on board. Help prevent survivors’ syndrome. Be there for your stayers, too.

Remember, at JobAccelerator we help outplaced employees land their next role faster with our on-demand job search portal that serves personalised, high quality and curated content, coupled with guidance from expert career coaches.