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An Unexpected COVID-19 Side Effect: Survivor Guilt for the Employed

The pandemic has brought significant physical and mental health concerns to people around the world. With business closings, reductions in force, and forced isolation for those who kept their jobs and careers uninterrupted, the pandemic has also brought an unexpected side effect — survivor guilt.

Traditionally, survivor guilt occurs when a person has survived something traumatic that others have not made it through. In the recent workplace, we have used this term to describe co-workers being laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic’s impact and adverse effects on the economy. The employees who still have their jobs may now feel guilty that they survived the layoffs, whereas their co-workers did not.

This feeling comes alongside the general anxiety that comes from everyday life and the pandemic. It’s a stressful time, with negativity and frustration felt across many industries. Seeing co-workers lose their jobs can add to those mental health concerns. At work, sharing these feelings with people who have similar experiences has been a resource for some.

According to a survey, 61% of respondents feel comfortable discussing mental health with their co-workers. As trusted co-workers get laid-off, employees may, in turn, bottle their anxiety or depression along with the new survivor guilt. This cycle creates an ongoing mental health crisis in the workplace.

Mental Health During the Pandemic

Survivor guilt speaks to the overall mental health crisis during the pandemic. With isolation and social distancing comes loneliness, depression and anxiety. These feelings can affect how people handle everyday tasks and their jobs. If an employer sees an individual’s performance dwindling, there’s a chance it’s due to a mental health concern.

In fact, 41% of adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders during the pandemic. Since it’s unclear how long the pandemic will ultimately last, bringing up the conversation is the best way to move forward.

Thus, to best help their employees, it’s now critical for the workplace to acknowledge these concerns. Through the support and discussions enabled by an effective mental health program, employees can obtain the tools they need to cope with survivor guilt and other existing mental health issues.

According to a study, 91% of employees believe the workplace should assist with mental health issues. However, in that same study, 73% of respondents stated that their job does not discuss mental health. As stress, guilt, grief, anxiety, and depression fluctuate through the pandemic, workplaces must incorporate these discussions into their culture. After all, if employees hold on to negative feelings with no outlet or resources, their mental health will continue to deteriorate, as will their performance at work.

Plus, destigmatizing mental health conversations at work fosters a more efficient, healthier environment for everyone.

Solutions for Survivor Guilt

To move forward within the workplace in a healthy way, communication is going to be critical. Feedback and dialogue are tools for bringing up what concerns people have been suppressing, like survivor guilt. Along the way, employers must be in tune with what their employees feel, then listen fully before acting or responding.

Supervisors can open up the dialogue about why the layoffs were necessary and encourage employees to voice how the firings themselves, and the departure of colleagues, has affected them. They should also discuss their needs from the work and company perspective. For instance, employers often ask survivors to work longer hours, yet they have to balance caregiving and home responsibilities on top of their professional lives.

It’s likely best to avoid congratulating anyone for keeping their job while others have lost theirs. Even as a response to their endurance and dedication to the company, employees may focus on the emotional aspect rather than the business side should any form of “congratulations” (let alone “your lucky to still have your job) come into a conversation.

Finally, consider feedback an ongoing conversation – not a one-time thing. Feedback can be as open or as anonymous as people want; regardless of the format, it facilitates more open discussions and, ultimately, more change. With the information collected during feedback sessions, the employer can provide a more transparent plan on the post-layoff direction the company is taking. Simultaneously, employees can voice their opinions on the layoffs and receive resources for mental health counseling. Through effective dialogue, they can also feel secure in their own jobs and benefits.

Making It Through the Pandemic

The pandemic poses countless challenges for people in and out of the workplace.

For those experiencing survivor guilt, it’s essential to speak up and reach out to helpful resources. Don’t go it alone. As many have already learned, issues that affect mental wellness don’t often just go away. Time does not heal all wounds.

For HR professionals, it’s critical to shift the company culture to be more open. We must be honest about the wide range of feelings that come with layoffs and the pandemic in general. Only then can employees move forward and overcome survivor guilt and other obstacles that negatively impact their mental well-being.