Overcoming survivor guilt: How to strengthen your work force after layoffs

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How to strengthen your work force after layoffs

It’s called survivor guilt, and many people are dealing with it as layoffs continue to affect their hospital and physician practice colleagues. Why are certain staff members laid off while others are spared? What does this mean for those who are left? Are more layoffs around the corner?

These concerns and many others are now in the minds of employees, making it crucial to deal with the matter head-on.

Following a round of layoffs, you must be up front with your employees, says John-Henry Pfifferling, PhD, founder and director of the Center for Professional Well-Being in Durham, NC. Pfifferling says it’s important to discuss what the layoffs mean in the larger picture for the organization—what they mean for the future—as well as the smaller issues that will immediately affect the group.

However, there will be questions for which managers may not have answers. And that’s okay, says Mark Murphy, chair and CEO of Leadership IQ, a research and executive education firm in Marietta, GA. It’s not always clear what the future holds for a practice, especially in today’s economy. But those questions must be dealt with because “they’re not going to go away,” Murphy says.

Managers and administrators need to give staff members as much information as possible in an honest manner, says Pfifferling. Employees who survived the layoffs should have the opportunity to openly discuss with management their feelings about what’s transpired. It’s important for managers to not only address, but also ease their anxieties, Pfifferling says.

“If we are not busy with patients, I do rounds to talk to staff about the issues that are affecting the hospital and the rest of the world,” says Charlene Kirby, RN, urgent care nurse manager at Vail (CO) Valley Medical Center. In addition, nurse managers should look at their facility’s culture in terms of the way it helps staff members manage stress.

With or without layoffs, Pfifferling recommends that managers hold regular meetings to address employees’ general concerns and questions. “Keep abreast of these issues,” he says.

The ones left behind

Survivor guilt is a phrase that perfectly describes the feelings of those who are left after a round of layoffs, says Pfifferling. This can be dangerous. Because it essentially “mimics depression,” he says, survivor guilt can lead to less involvement in work-related activities, lack of motivation, low morale, decreased productivity, and the inability to think clearly (see “Cost-effective ways to boost staff morale” on p. 6).

“There will be grief [following layoffs],” Pfifferling says, adding that the layoffs can result in a “reality shock” for your staff.

Avoiding the situation will not help, says Murphy. It will simply become the elephant in the room.

It’s crucial to the success of the facility for employees to grieve the loss of their colleagues. “Morale will continue to sink and productivity will begin to suffer if you don’t deal with it,” Murphy says.

After the newness of the layoffs wears off and you’ve discussed the matter openly, closely monitor employees’ performance and provide ample feedback. Establish expectations for staff members, Murphy recommends. Also, determine the work that needs to be done now that your work force is smaller. Each employee will inevitably see an increase in his or her workload in the wake of the layoffs. Murphy says managers should work with employees to make sure their responsibilities are manageable and ensure that the added work is distributed as evenly as possible.

The added stress of an increased workload could lead to poor attitudes, Murphy warns, another issue that must be dealt with from the start. “You can’t let a talented terror slip through the cracks and make things more difficult for the staff than they have to be,” he says.

This is also a time when rumors can evolve. It’s crucial to dispel them as soon as possible. Be up front and explain why some employees were laid off and others were not. “You need to make sure that rumors don’t carry any power,” Pfifferling says.

By creating transparency with communication, you may also make staff members more likely and more eager to pitch in. “If staff know what is going on in the organization, they will be willing to help out,” says Kirby. “I share with staff where the organization is financially, and we talk about how the economy is affecting other people so staff realize we are all in this together.”

The next steps

After layoffs, boosting morale among the rest of your staff becomes crucial. Managers should begin by looking at individuals’ and the facility’s past circumstances as a way to determine what has produced morale. Armed with that knowledge, you can work to boost the office spirit. It’s basically reframing the current situation, making any necessary changes, and turning things around, Murphy says.

You’ll need to learn how to continue the hospital’s or practice’s regular functions with fewer resources. One way is by eliminating waste in employees’ days, says Murphy, noting that tying up higher-level staff members with superfluous meetings or reports only wastes time.

Murphy adds that managers should be more visible during this time of layoffs, taking a hands-on approach to management and communicating with staff members regularly.

“I truly believe that as a nurse manager, I need to be a working nurse manager,” says Kirby. “It helps when I pitch in on the floor when staff is low because staff see that I am willing to work just as hard as they are.”

Being out in the trenches of your practice will give you a clear idea of what’s happening and how employees are coping. Given the increased workload created by the layoffs, this will help you watch for signs of burnout and determine the level of staff morale. Mingling among your employees on a daily basis allows you to quickly recognize these types of situations and develop appropriate solutions.



Adapted from The Doctor’s Office, May 2009, HCPro, Inc.