Stress, Fear and Loathing

How to handle post-traumatic layoff syndrome for employees still on the job.


Stress, Fear and LoathingHow to handle your employees who survive the layoffs    By Tim Collie  

For many employees these days each morning brings a new episode of what might be called "Survivor: Workplace" — an office drama where life is lived under the perpetual threat of being voted off their humble employment island.

And just like the reality TV series, the stress, fear and loathing are often most experienced by those left behind, not their colleagues led out the door.

The Paradox of Survivorhood

As layoffs mount across the United States — 2.5 million in 2008, probably 2 million more in 2009 — many experts are focusing more on the stress experienced by those who escape layoffs.

Several decades’ worth of research by management experts, psychologists and scholars suggests that those still with jobs after layoffs hit their workplaces are actually caught in a downward spiral of poor morale, less productivity and declining performance that’s very difficult to escape. Some studies indicate that those who survive one or more layoff experiences are at increased risk for ill health compared to workers who have never directly witnessed downsizing at their companies.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the reasoning goes something like this: the unemployed are now beginning the next acts of their lives. Like war refugees, they may have lost everything, but they’re off the battlefield. In a very real sense, the more driven among them can only move up.

Not so for those still doing battle. They are likely faced with increased workloads, more fear and a decided lack of trust in both their colleagues and their managers. Each day may bring new recriminations and the never-ending fear they’ll be next.

That’s only intensified in the worst economy managers and workers have experienced in their lifetimes.

"Ten or 15 years ago the research said that those who survived a layoff were actually much worse off than those who were laid off," said Wayne Hochwarter, the Jim Moran Professor of Business Administration at Florida State University. "The ones who got laid off had this cloud over them that just got whisked away. They could get on with their lives.
"That has changed though, because both those laid off and those maybe facing the next rounds know there’s nothing out there," he added. "A decade ago you took your severance, maybe took a couple of months off, then came back and found something else. But now there isn’t anything else, and that in a sense weighs just as hard on those surviving layoffs as those who went through them."

A Paralyzing Fear: The Unknown

There is no shortage of names management experts have coined for this experience. Post-traumatic layoff syndrome. Left-behind syndrome. Post-layoff lethargy. Workplace survivor guilt.

Contrary to popular belief, those who survive the layoff aren’t motivated to strive harder to fill the workload gap, nor do they appreciate their managers more for being spared.

 "When people don’t know what’s going on and they don’t trust the company and when they suspect there’s more to come — they don’t work anymore," said Hochwarter, who has conducted several studies looking at layoff survivors. "What I’ve found is that people aren’t working harder, they’re working behind the scenes, they’re being manipulative, they’re trying to get their boss’s ear. "

Consultant Susan Robinson sees fear as the overwhelming emotion that eats away at relationships in many workplaces.

Robinson, who specializes in employee engagement with her company, Rivetmaker Consulting, has a suggestion for managers: "The way to resolve some of that is to be authentic, and to be fair. People want to know that there’s some sort of logic, that it’s not just an opportunity to get rid of people."

The body of research going back three decades is remarkably consistent in its findings, said Hochwarter. What has changed is the advent of the high-tech workplace, and the emergence of three distinct generations of workers since the 1960s.

The modern office now offers workers 24/7 streams of information and outlets to nurture their grievances. They can surf the Internet in many companies in an unrestricted fashion, and create blogs specifically about their workplace. That can severely wither any sense of loyalty or cohesion pre- and post-layoff.

The Generational Factor

At the same time, the vast upheavals in U.S. employment over the last three decades have created a generational divide between workers in terms of corporate loyalty and expectations.

Baby boomers, who caught the tail end of an era in which many employees expected to stay with a company for life, often feel trapped and hang on during successive rounds of layoffs. Call it denial or loyalty, it only increases their stress. Now in their 50s and 60s, many are looking at 401Ks that have been eroded at the same time many of their children are approaching college age.

Gen Xers, those who were born roughly after 1964, often have as much angst as the boomers but less loyalty. They want to stay part of the team, but are a bit more fleet of foot when bad times come.

And Millennials — those born after 1982 — have no problem with bolting at the first sign their job is going away. They’ve seen their parents laid off. They generally expect nothing from a company and thus may weather the storm better, some research suggests.

To Each His Own Challenge

Managers, who also fall into these generational groups, likely will have different approaches to each situation. But the management moves that could counter these trends still seem remarkably commonsensical — be positive, be honest, be transparent and solicit employee input. But they’re rarely undertaken.

"Communication and trust — I know that sounds willy-nilly but it’s been shown time and again in thousands of surveys and studies to work," Hochwarter said. "When people know what’s going on, when they understand where they are, when they feel like they’re part of the process, then you can get a sense of cooperation."

Indeed, the best advice for both managers and their underlings in the short term may be simple exercise. Employees who remain with jobs after a layoff are prone to depression, weight gain, neck and back pain, and alcoholism, according to a 2003 study by the Institute of Behavioral Science. The effects were found to be more severe in fields that are perceived to be in decline, like the automotive and newspaper industries.

"Sometimes, simple exercise may do a tremendous amount to get you through something like this,’’ said D.M. Gabrielle, a psychologist and consultant based in Tallahassee. "If you listen to all the propaganda, if you listen to all the stuff that really is out there happening, then it’s going to affect your health, physically and emotionally. So I really encourage people to turn the news off and try not to focus on the negative things happening."

For employees, she suggests focusing on your skills, while projecting confidence and a good attitude. Figure out how best you can stand out as essential to the company going forward. But target your goals.

"You need to be smart with your work," said Gabrielle, who has advised dozens of businesses, school districts and other organizations in northern Florida. "Volunteering for everything only means you’re not going to be giving your energy in the way you should be."

For company decision makers, it’s no secret that better communication can improve morale and productivity. But Gabrielle and other consultants agree they rarely see this advice implemented.

"No, many managers aren’t good at fostering trust, communicating,’’ she added.

How EAGER Are Your Employees?

A study released in December 2008 by Leadership IQ — a Washington, D.C., management training company — found that three-fourths of 4,100 layoff survivors surveyed felt their productivity had declined. And they felt their co-workers also were slacking off.

By margins of 75 percent or more, these survivors at 318 companies said they saw more mistakes being made, customer service had declined, and they weren’t recommending their workplace to outsiders seeking jobs.

What made the difference for those who responded favorably was the sense that their leadership was being open and honest. Those who said their managers were approachable were 72 percent less likely to say their productivity had fallen. And 65 percent who liked their bosses said the same of their co-workers.

So, how eager are your employees? Here’s an EAGER test developed by Charles and Susan Robinson, behavioral clinicians and the co-founders of Rivetmaker Consulting Inc., which may help you figure that out.

Rate each behavior, based on your own observations and what has been reported to you.
0 = Not Observed
1 = Mild
2 = Moderate
3 = Severe or High
_____ High turnover
 _____Excessive absences
_____ "Us/them" splits between management and line staff, or between departments
_____Venting, griping, complaining
_____Doing the minimum
_____"Not my job"
_____Focused on the past

_____Hostile communications
_____Bad mouthing the company in person or on the Internet
_____Employee theft of tangible or intellectual property
_____Employee litigation against the company
_____Workplace violence

____High employee retention
____Word-of-mouth recruiting
____Creative problem solving
____Lively and interactive meetings
____Focused on the future


Score your results

For each behavioral category, what number shows up most often?

Escape/Avoid: ______ Get Even: ______ Riveted: _______

Escape/Avoidance behaviors reflect disengagement.

Get Even are retaliatory behaviors that work against your company goals and objectives.

Riveted behaviors are signs that employees are actively engaged.

If Riveted = 0 or 1, disengagement is draining energy and resources. If Get Even behaviors are also present, disengagement is high risk.

If Riveted = 2 or 3, there is significant evidence of engagement. You can build on this connection, to increase performance, resolve internal conflicts and constructively direct employee energy.

Scored a 2 or 3 in all categories? This workgroup or organization is polarized into "us and them." Drill a little deeper to examine the patterns. Apply the EAGER test to smaller groups of employees, then identify the factors that keep some employees "in" while others are outsiders.