Survivor's Syndrome

Survivor’s syndrome

By: Sarah Boesveld

When co-workers are laid off and you’re spared the axe, you can’t help feeling guilty and relieved at the same time.

Susan has learned that seniority, a good work ethic and kind colleagues are no match for the layoff axe sharpened by the current financial crisis.

In July, after nearly 14 years with a Toronto card stock and paper company, the financial controller and two others were told that by mid-October their jobs would be history.

But as she prepared to plow through her lengthy notice period, it wasn’t Susan who expressed anguish at her loss, but a co-worker whose job was spared.

"She said to me, ‘I feel like I’m the bad guy in all of this because I get to keep my job and you guys don’t. I feel like there’s a rift between us,’ " she said. "So I called her into my office and we talked about it."

Susan, who has never been laid off before and didn’t want her last name or the company’s used for fear it will negatively affect her job search, says she did feel a rift between herself and her colleagues.

"Although we’re all still good friends, and they have our best interests at heart, it created a strange relationship in the office," she says. "For the three of us who were let go, we felt it all to be toxic by the end. In hindsight I would’ve wished they just let us go."

As the economic crisis eats Canadian jobs in sectors where layoffs of this magnitude have never been seen before, employees watching their colleagues get cut are fretting about how to conduct themselves.

Many, like Susan’s colleague, find themselves feeling paralyzed, guilty, anxious and relieved all at once.

Career coach Alan Kearns calls it "survivor’s syndrome."

"It’s just like if something happens at war and you’ve lost somebody – there’s sort of a guilt," he says. "On one hand you’re feeling great it wasn’t you and on the other hand you’re feeling guilty it wasn’t you. It’s a very awkward emotional feeling."

Remaining employees can push aside that awkwardness by taking on some of the extra work that will arise – a perfect chance for someone trying to impress the boss.

"Oftentimes, in an ironic kind of way, it can provide opportunity. Maybe your colleague was working on a project and [your boss] has asked you to take over part of it," Mr. Kearns says. "It’s not like the work gets to be less."

Interacting with colleagues who’ve just heard the news is one of the toughest parts, both experts and employees say. For many, it’s hard to find the right words.

Last month, Dave Brown was laid off from AIC Ltd., a mutual funds company that cut 53 jobs in his Burlington office, and felt that while his former colleagues were sensitive, many didn’t know what to say as he made his round of goodbyes after getting the news.

"People were so frightened themselves that they had kind of closed the door, and they were just waiting to find out if their name was going to be on this list," he says. "It was up to me to initiate the contact."

Encroaching on the space of a colleague who has just been laid off is one of the worst things you can do, says Debbie Grove, a career and relationships counsellor in Edmonton.

One of her female clients remembered returning to her office fresh from the layoff meeting with her bosses to see a colleague packing up her desk.

"The person thought they were helping," Ms. Grove says. "In this case [the client] really thought they were being rushed out, that their time there was less important."

The right time to offer help is when you hear about their job loss – not days or weeks after. Whether you want to offer contacts, guidance or a shoulder to cry on, leave it as an open invitation so they can take you up on it if they want to. Otherwise, just give them space and only check in occasionally, she says.

You don’t need to hide the relief you feel about still having a job, Mr. Kearns says, adding that regardless of how awkward it may feel, you can’t let emotions get in the way of your work.

"You have to not let yourself be distracted by that," he says. "Ultimately you still have to show up every day to work and do your thing."


Face to face

Tips from CareerJoy’s Alan Kearns on dealing with the newly departed:

Shut up and listen: "Don’t feel like you need to be the answer to solve the problem," he says. "Just let them vent."

Let them lead: "If they look like they need help, you give it."

Draw up a list of contacts, just in case: "Make a couple of calls even before they’ve accepted your help. [But] if you’re reaching out, you have to remember it’s your reputation, too."

Be sympathetic, but real: "Don’t spin it. … They don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, you’ll get another job.’ "