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Navigating Layoffs: 5 Practical Strategies for Overcoming Survivor's Guilt and Embracing Change

In today's dynamic corporate environment, layoffs have sadly become commonplace. Having personally witnessed multiple major layoffs during my tenure at two tech companies, affecting thousands of colleagues each time, I've come to realise the profound impact these events have, not just on those directly affected, but also on survivors grappling with feelings of guilt and uncertainty.

In the aftermath of these layoffs, while some find themselves facing the harsh reality of unemployment, others, though still employed, are burdened with survivor's guilt and must navigate through significant organisational changes. Yet, this aspect often remains overlooked, leaving many feeling isolated and without guidance on how to cope effectively.

Demoralised employee

Personal Experience: Weathering Layoffs at Expedia and Meta

Recalling my first encounter with layoffs as an individual contributor at Expedia, I vividly remember the shock and sorrow that permeated the office. The abruptness of the process, with colleagues receiving sudden HR notifications and being ushered out of the building within hours, left an indelible mark. It felt like a tsunami had hit my tribe, sweeping away key members and leaving the rest of us to make sense of what happened. Witnessing friends and coworkers facing uncertain futures triggered a conflicting mix of guilt and relief within me, amplifying the challenge of focusing on work amidst the chaos.

Subsequently, as a people manager at Meta during another round of layoffs, I experienced a different wave of emotions. Beyond managing my own feelings, I felt a deep sense of responsibility to support my team through this tumultuous period. However, the emotional toll of providing care while grappling with my own uncertainties left me feeling drained. Drawing upon support from fellow managers proved invaluable, offering insights and strategies for navigating the organisational upheaval together.

Understanding Survivor's Guilt

Survivor's guilt, a common response to traumatic events like layoffs, stems from witnessing the plight of colleagues while questioning one's own fate. Coupled with the upheaval of organisational restructuring, this often leads to heightened feelings of insecurity and fear among survivors.

The aftermath of layoffs can manifest in various behaviours among survivors. I’ve witnessed colleagues who overcompensate by burying themselves in work, in hope that they are seen as top performers and will be safe from future rounds of cuts. On the other end of the spectrum, some become so disillusioned that they embrace ‘quiet quitting’ and wait for that golden handshake.  

5 Practical Strategies for Coping and Moving Forward

In times of crisis, it's crucial to focus on what you can control rather than dwelling on the whys and what-ifs of layoffs. Here are five tips to support survivors and foster resilience:

1. Practice self-care and seek support. Put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. Understand that healing from survivor's guilt takes time and patience. Be gentle with yourself and avoid setting unrealistic expectations for your recovery process. Focusing on what you can control can often serve as good anchor points in what feels like a storm. This can mean spending more time in nature, or even working on saving more for that rainy day. And don’t hesitate to reach out to colleagues, friends, or professional counsellors for emotional support. 

2. Understand the company’s new priorities. Following a layoff, teams may merge, new managers may take charge, and certain work objectives may be deprioritised. Seek clarity from leadership regarding the company's revised vision and objectives, and how these changes will impact your team and your role. It is also just as important to understand what hasn’t changed, as these can help provide a base for you and your team to rebuild on. In cases where your manager may also be uncertain about the team’s future direction, take proactive steps to influence and shape your team or department's new goals post-layoffs in a manner that aligns with your professional advantage.

3. Don’t try to rationalise the layoffs. Don’t spend time trying to figure out why some teams were safe, and others were impacted. You will be going down into a rabbit hole that may leave you more frustrated than provide any clarity. How large companies plan layoffs could be a combination of target budget cuts, business need, geographical location, performance, last in first out etc. Each business leader may also have different priorities, which may vary the impact on one division versus another.

hand reaching out to another hand

4. Support your team but avoid giving any false hope. New priorities, roles, and reporting structures can contribute to feelings of uncertainty and instability. What I find helpful are listening sessions, either as 1:1 or small group sessions, where team members can express their feelings and how they want to be supported.  If you are a people manager, your team may be looking to you for direction but refrain from making promises you cannot guarantee. You don’t want to lure your team members into a false sense of security as it will only undermine the trust and stability in your team. As we can see in Meta’s case, business priorities can change quickly and layoffs are becoming the new norm. 

5. Cultivate stronger networks, both within and outside the company. Don't assume that your immediate managers effectively advocate for your work to senior management. Take proactive steps to engage stakeholders and ensure they understand the value of your contributions. Building a robust internal network of mentors and peers can provide support and keep you connected during periods of change. Furthermore, in nurturing relationships both within and outside the organization, you enhance your ability to seek assistance in securing future opportunities if you are affected by subsequent job cuts.

Conclusion: Navigating layoffs is never easy

Survivor's guilt is a silent struggle that often goes unnoticed in the aftermath of layoffs. But survivors grapple with more than just this as they also need to navigate massive organisational changes and shift in work priorities. By acknowledging its existence and implementing strategies to support those affected, we can foster a culture of empathy and resilience within our organisations. It is tough but by accepting the uncertainty, focusing on the present and what you can control, this can help prevent unnecessary frustration and anxiety. Together, we can navigate the challenges of corporate restructuring and emerge stronger on the other side, for ourselves and for our teams.



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