Published February 5, 2024

Estimated read time: 2 mins


Survivor Syndrome: Understanding its Psychological Impact

Survivor Syndrome: Understanding its Psychological Impact on Individuals and Organizations

In today's ever-changing environment, companies adjust to changes in the economy, technology, and global uncertainties, by downsizing, restructuring, and reducing their workforce. Amidst these unsettled times, a psychological phenomenon known as Survivor Syndrome is drawn upon those who remain within the organization after witnessing the departure of their colleagues. This distressing experience poses significant challenges to both individuals and organizations, affecting morale, productivity, and overall well-being in an already uncertain professional landscape. It's important to understand Survivor Syndrome and find ways to support those who are affected, especially during times of ongoing layoffs and organizational challenges, to keep the workforce strong and resilient.

What is Survivor Syndrome?

Survivor Syndrome, also known as Survivor Guilt or Layoff Survivor Syndrome, refers to the psychological phenomenon experienced by employees who have managed to keep their jobs during times of layoffs, downsizing, or organizational restructuring. While they may feel relieved to still be employed, survivors often experience a range of negative emotions and stress due to witnessing the departure of their colleagues and friends who were laid off. This syndrome can show up in a number of ways, including feelings of guilt, anxiety, fear, and decreased job satisfaction. Survivor Syndrome is a significant organizational and individual concern that can have profound effects on both productivity and well-being.

Understanding the Psychology behind Survivor Syndrome

The psychology behind Survivor Syndrome is complex and can be attributed to various factors. Firstly, survivors may experience guilt and self-doubt, questioning why they were spared while their coworkers lost their jobs. They might perceive themselves as undeserving or lucky, leading to a diminished sense of self-worth. Secondly, the increased workload and responsibilities placed on survivors after layoffs can cause stress and burnout. They may struggle to cope with the added pressure and uncertainty, fearing they may be the next ones to lose their jobs. Thirdly, survivors often endure a grieving process for their departed colleagues, resulting in feelings of loss and sadness. These emotional challenges can contribute to a decline in motivation and engagement at work, further exacerbating the negative impact of the syndrome.

How does Survivor Syndrome affect an organization?

1. Decline in employee performance and morale

  • Survivor Syndrome can have far-reaching adverse effects on organizations. One of the primary concerns is decreased employee morale and motivation. Survivors who are emotionally drained and disheartened are less likely to perform at their best, leading to reduced productivity and efficiency. The increased workload on survivors might also lead to a decline in the quality of their work, impacting overall organizational performance. A meta-analysis of various research studies by Harvard Business Review showed that after layoffs, companies experienced a 25% decrease in performance and a 31% decline in employee morale. 

2. Increase in stress and job dissatisfaction

  • Layoffs increase stress and lead to job dissatisfaction in employees. For instance, a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 48% of employees who survived layoffs reported increased stress levels and decreased job satisfaction. This can result in a toxic work environment with higher levels of employee turnover. 

3. Increased employee turnover rates

  • Survivors may develop feelings of resentment towards the organization for the perceived lack of fairness in the layoff process and build a toxic work environment leading to higher turnover rates. According to Payscale voluntary employee turnover in 2023 is 25%.

4. Decreased engagement and financial profitability

  • A study by Gallup indicated that organizations with disengaged employees experience 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity, and 15% lower profitability. 

5. Damaged to the employer reputation

  • An analysis by Leadership IQ (2022) reveals that 87% of the employees who survived a layoff no longer recommend their employer as a great place to work.

How can you mitigate the adverse effects of Survivor Syndrome?

Mitigating the adverse effects of Survivor Syndrome requires a proactive and empathetic approach from organizations. Here are some steps that can be taken:

1. Communication and Transparency: Open and honest communication from management about the reasons for layoffs and the future plans of the organization can help address the uncertainty and fear among survivors. Transparency fosters trust and helps employees feel more connected to the company's vision.

2. Employee Support Programs: Implementing support programs, such as coaching, workshops, or mentorship initiatives, can assist survivors in coping with the emotional toll of the layoffs. Coaching and these other support programs can significantly contribute to mitigating the consequences of Survivor Syndrome and empowering individuals to overcome emotional hurdles, regain motivation, and thrive professionally in the aftermath of layoffs or organizational changes. Moreover, it provides a safe space for employees to express their feelings and to facilitate the healing process. 

3. Redistributing Workload: Employers should assess the workload of survivors and consider redistributing tasks or hiring additional help when necessary. Overburdened employees are more likely to experience burnout and reduced performance.

4. Recognition and Appreciation: Recognizing the efforts and contributions of survivors can boost their morale and reinforce their value to the organization. Regular appreciation and positive feedback go a long way in enhancing job satisfaction.

5. Professional Development Opportunities: Offering opportunities for skill development and training can empower survivors to adapt to new challenges and increase their confidence in their abilities.

In conclusion, Survivor Syndrome is a complex psychological phenomenon that can have profound adverse effects on both individuals and organizations. Recognizing the potential impact of layoffs and adopting strategies to mitigate the negative consequences can help organizations foster a supportive and resilient work environment, promoting the well-being and productivity of their employees.