June 29, 2020

Survivor Syndrome

The first half of 2020 has been a difficult few months for everybody and no sector has been completely immune to the negative impact that Coronavirus has had on the business. However, many businesses are starting to return to some form of trading, albeit with new health and safety measures in place. For many though, the new normal will be vastly different from anything business leaders could have imagined at the start of this pandemic.

The ultimate impact on the UK labour force is not yet known but some of the numbers that we are seeing are eye-watering. Around 8.4 million workers have been furloughed in the UK and it is estimated that approximately 250,000 UK firms will be making some employees redundant as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme starts to wind down. This could be as many as 6.5 million jobs lost according to a study by the Independent Institute for Social and Economic Research. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) there were just under 28 million people employed in the UK prior to the pandemic so we could be looking at nearly a quarter of total UK workers being displaced at some point during 2020. Many of these of course will go on to find new work relatively quickly but of course the future of a lot of people is very uncertain. This worry is palpable in firms that are being hit hardest and this creates an environment where survivor syndrome is more likely to be present, and potentially more severe cases for those that experience it.

It is important that HR practitioners and business leaders understand what Survivor Syndrome is and how it can be managed so employees are less likely to be severely impacted. The risk of doing nothing over the coming weeks may see employees taking an increased amount of time off sick and productivity and creativity falling just when you need everybody pulling together and working at their best.

So, what is Survivor syndrome?

Put quite simply, survivor syndrome is the ‘guilt’ that people experience when they have survived a crisis that other people didn’t. Coronavirus has created a unique environment where people have gone through a traumatic experience in their personal lives and may have lost loved ones or known people that have sadly passed away due to the virus. Peoples’ lives have been turned upside down and this experience is difficult enough on its own. On top of that, faced with the household potentially losing their livelihood people will experience stress and anxiety at a level they have perhaps never experienced in their lives before. Learning that you have not lost your job will be a massive relief for people and will be a huge boost to morale. But this will likely be short-lived as the reality of their colleagues and friends who perhaps did not survive the redundancies starts to kick in. When people are already feeling vulnerable to change, being asked to return to work with social distancing measures in place and the loss of friends (due to redundancy) can be just as hard. This exaggerates the negative feelings of guilt associated with the fact they have kept their job when others haven’t. Survivor Syndrome has the potential therefore to be more severe in the wake of Coronavirus than it normally would be when a Company is restructuring in more settled times.

Impact of Survivor Syndrome

People respond to trauma in many different ways and Survivor Syndrome is widely regarded as a form of PTSD. This can lead to distress that can last many weeks, months or years even. It is very important therefore that employees are closely monitored and support is available to those that are experiencing any form of anxiety or depression during the next phase of returning to some form of normality. Mental Health is one of the top causes of employee sickness absence in the UK and this will likely increase in the coming months. Any unplanned absence at a time when workforces have been reduced will have a greater impact on those that are in work and quality / performance will likely be impacted further making it more and more difficult for businesses to fully and efficiently operate to capacity.

How to Manage Survivor Syndrome

First and foremost, it is important to acknowledge that Survivor Syndrome is real. Expecting employees to be grateful that they have a job and should just get on with it is not a great strategy. People will have been genuinely affected by the pandemic and redundancies and no matter how resilient they think they are, there will be a period of readjustment before mental health returns to normal and productivity starts to flourish.

Employees should feel that accepting mental health support is normal for most people and one way to encourage this is to make a recommendation to staff that they attend an initial appointment with a mental health specialist regardless of how they think they are coping. If that is not practical in the current climate then access to a mental health specialist can be offered on a self-serve basis. A proactive approach to this will likely see a better take-up.

Another way employers can minimise uncertainty and ultimately the guilt of keeping their job when colleagues didn’t, is to communicate well. Help employees to understand the current situation and the decisions made. If employees are not well informed, they will fill the gaps with their own version of reality which could cause the employment relationship to breakdown. It should be explained to employees what changes have been made and how these changes impact on their working lives. Creating a sense of community will help people settle back in, especially those that continue to work from home as they will be isolated and it will be more difficult to see for themselves how things really are. Therefore, new communication channels should be opened up with opportunities to ask questions and to get involved.

In summary – as part of planning ahead, employers should anticipate that Survivor Syndrome is a real mental health issue that could impact on their business. Communication should be improved and employees should be offered the opportunity to take up mental health support if they want or need it. Special attention should be given to employees that continue to work from home. If employees are looked after the severity of Survivor Syndrome can be minimised and impact on the business can be mitigated.

Theresa Mayne – DPG online CIPD course facilitator and HR subject matter expert.