Survivors: What Next?

By Laura French, Star Tribune Sales and Marketing

February 1, 2010

We read articles every day about the stresses of being unemployed. But what about the employees who are still on the job after one round or more of layoffs? Research shows that surviving a layoff can actually be more stressful than being laid off.

A 2003 study by the Institute of Behavioral Science found that "layoff survivors" are more likely to smoke, have neck and back pain, use more sick days and suffer more workplace injuries. The study found that the consequences of a layoff can last up to six years.

The Work Of Four

Why would keeping a job be more stressful than losing one? "Survivor's guilt" is one explanation. In addition, employees who are laid off sometimes compare the experience to the end of a bad marriage - both painful and a source of relief.

Another factor is that the workers who remain behind may find themselves with an increased workload, including duties for which they aren't trained or qualified. A worker interviewed for a Los Angeles Times article reports that he now does "the work once done by four people." Trying to survive job cuts makes people reluctant to say "no" to the increased workload, or even to take vacation or sick days.

"Layoffs leave people scrambling to redefine their roles and responsibilities," says Kate Schaefers, Ph.D., founder of Encore Life Planning. "This shifting sand underfoot can be very stressful and overwhelming." Schaefers advises that, in spite of feeling overwhelmed, layoff survivors need to "do some serious prioritizing and negotiating on how to focus efforts."

Positioned To Survive

While managing workload and stress may be the current focus for layoff survivors, 2010 may be a time to re-examine and re-prioritize. "Keep networks fresh, play it forward with people who want to connect, stay current with skills. We all need to be active managers of our careers," Schaefers says.

"I don't know if we have a way to determine when cuts are over," Schaefers says. "This ebb and flow in the workplace seems to be part of doing business today, and we all need to be positioned to survive in this kind of an environment."

In short, don't be so nervous about keeping your job that you stop envisioning a brighter future. "I think the message is loud and clear that we all need to keep our eyes on the next move, which may be voluntary or not," Schaefers says.