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Survivor’s Guilt: Alone in the Office

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are, as of February 2009, around 12.5 million people without jobs. That translates to a 8.1 percent national unemployment rate.

Worried yet?

It’s obvious that the high unemployment rate and the lurching economy is causing panic and grey hairs.

However, the dramatic loss of jobs is also brewing a noxious form of “survivor’s guilt” in offices across America.

Just a year ago organizations were still firing people for rational reasons: low productivity, bad sales, failure to impress the boss.

Now, lay-offs are arbitrary. Firms are shedding employees without looking at the resumes and personalities involved since they are absorbed with tweaking their bottom line.

Talent retention, once a challenge for managers, has been abandoned and replaced with hiring freezes and contingency plans. The employees who hold onto their jobs are grateful but they are also shocked that their colleagues, sometimes better performers, have lost their jobs. It’s called “survivor’s guilt” and it causes apprehension, sadness, and it diminishes the employees respect for management.

As a leader it’s important to acknowledge the damage layoffs can have on morale. People are worried about the safety of their jobs but they are also shocked and moved when they see a perfectly hard-working co-worker receive the pink slip.

The survivor’s guilt may seem like a luxury in this day in age and certainly it pales to the crisis faced by those who have lost their positions.  That said, it does challenge proactive leaders who have to remobilize their shrunken, downtrodden organizations, reinvigorate their disheartened staff, and rediscover a sense of purpose and direction.  Survivor’s guilt can become part of the corporate culture, adding to the already existing inertia and anxiety.

In an economy where a disproportionate number of employed individuals wonder whether their organization will lay off more people, survivor’s guilt is another psychological component, adding to the malaise. The question is–how do leaders deal with this psychological state while understanding the reality of the situation?  As difficult as it may sound, proactive leaders at this time must not simply illustrate concrete, positive possibilities, but need to perpetuate a culture of collective, an attitude of empathy, and a spirit of interpersonal reciprocity.

In the current environment the workplace can easily become a social-psychological maze, with trauma, guilt, anxiety, and suspicion.  This is a time for proactive leaders to keep focused on their mission, stay on top of their tactics, but not forget the social-psychological state of their workers. An optimistic word is not only good for the market, but also morale.



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