As we move through the evolving challenges of Covid-19, the many unforeseen consequences for both individuals and businesses are becoming increasingly apparent.

A major consequence is that many businesses are struggling to survive and have faced difficult decisions about restructure and redundancies. Undoubtedly, the worst affected are those who have lost their jobs. However, a secondary impact has been a rise in survivor guilt in those who remain.

Survivor guilt is associated with the interpersonal process of “surviving” harm while others have not. It is a form of suffering which can contribute to anxiety, anger, self-blame and feelings of remorse. If left unchecked, it can impact work performance, mental health and wellbeing.

Response to change

As with any change, there will be variation in how individuals cope, and this may also shift over time:

  • From the moment consultation on changes to the business start, anxiety will be raised.
  • Staff are likely to go through a process of resistance and denial as the reality of the situation becomes apparent.
  • As job losses are announced staff will oscillate between anxiety, frustration and despair.
  • Eventually, after co-workers have left, remaining staff will go through a process of adjustment. This includes adapting to the loss of colleagues as well as changes to work roles and demands.

As the dust settles, some staff will feel able to bounce back and carry on with the task at hand. But others may experience ongoing feelings of guilt and remorse, blaming themselves for their colleagues’ misfortune and feeling anxious and uncertain about their own position.

Preventing survivor guilt

As organisations progress through a process of restructure, awareness of staff responses will be key to preventing difficulties later on. It will be important to take action to minimise the potential for survivor guilt by:

  • Adhering to clear protocols. Doing so provides comfort to those who remain, reducing the risk that they will feel responsible for any staff cuts.
  • Being clear and open about the process by which some people lost their jobs will help to reduce anxiety about further job losses.
  • Offering early debriefing with remaining staff following the redundancies. This facilitates safe and open discussion of difficult feelings that can often undermine wellbeing and contribute to survivor guilt.

Managing survivor guilt

Staff who go on to experience survivor guilt may need a little extra support to recover and develop new, more hopeful ways of viewing the situation. Employers can assist in this process by:

  • Making space to actively listen to staff concerns and anxieties.
  • Supporting staff who are struggling to explore the facts of the situation and reappraise what happened. This might include: finding more balanced ways of seeing the situation, and their role in it; drawing on evidence that they did all they could to support their co-workers; recognising that it was the circumstances not the survivor that was to blame.
  • Recognising that the process of adjustment takes time and staff members will adapt in different ways and at different rates.
  • Making resilience coaching available for those in most need.

Remember, survivor guilt places additional pressure and demands on staff who remain in post. Although they may be perceived as the ‘lucky’ ones, it is important not to underestimate the mental health impact of losing a colleague, who may have also been a friend. Therefore, putting a workplace wellbeing plan in place prior to any service restructure will be crucial for protecting the health and wellbeing of individuals, teams and the wider organisation.