A loss of any kind is always difficult. But when colleagues walk out the door for the last time as a result of downsizing, the employees who remain, the "survivors," often suffer a lack of motivation, engagement and productivity, a syndrome that can also severely affect a company's operations.
A new report on "Survivor Syndrome" released by The Conference Board indicates that the old adage that time heals all wounds is not necessarily true in the workplace.
Because downsizing often increases the survivors' workloads and gives them the impression that they must do more with less, getting back to work can be difficult, the report said, as perceptions of the employer's loyalty are shaken.
"We recommend that management teams take a holistic approach to employee engagement during tough times," Stephanie Creary, research associate in human capital at The Conference Board and author of the report, told HispanicBusiness.com.
She said companies should focus on making improvements in five key areas: organization health (for example, the culture and policies); managerial excellence; job design (variety, challenge, and impact of employees' work); workplace readiness (particularly work/life flexibility); and extrinsic rewards (an emphasis on non-financial rewards in challenging times).
The report by The Conference Board, an independent business membership and research association, identified three critical phases of the "survivor syndrome" framework.
The first is strategic decision making. When a decision to downsize is made, "downsizing agents" are appointed to carry out the reductions. These are generally human resource professionals and line managers. The layoff planning may take place over several months or perhaps executed within a few days. The report indicates that enacting a well-developed "crisis communication" plan will help mitigate the negative effects of layoffs.
The second phase is the perceptions of the survivors.
Those employees who remain after layoffs may view them as unfair. Management can help mitigate that by opening communication, the report said. One way to do that is to solicit employees' feedback before, during and after the layoffs.
"Layoffs generally are not personal and when survivors wonder 'Am I next?' this is often related to a sense that the layoff decisions were made for personal rather than for strategic reasons," Creary said. "In general, employees are laid off to reduce redundancies, or to eliminate positions in which the work can be shared by others in the organization."
She said it's important for employees to realize that they can be laid off in this current economic environment, especially if their position is seen as less strategic to the company in the long term.
"Much of the fear that employees face is related to the financial insecurity that comes from loss of employment," Creary said, "so anything that companies can do to reassure employees that they would be offered severance packages, outplacement counseling, or benefits for the short term if they are laid off can be helpful."
The third phase is survivor reactions. Three variables related to management's actions during a layoff -- communication, transparency and trust -- may influence whether the survivor perceives the downsizing as strategic (fair) or impulsive (unfair), the report said.
The study suggests leveraging existing people strategies, including internal communications such as blogs, staff meetings and brown bag lunches. Also helpful are learning opportunities such as additional training and staff development initiatives that would facilitate job changes resulting from the downsizing, the report said.
Creary said that employees can also help one another get through a difficult period after the layoffs.
"One important practice is for employees to encourage one another to use whatever outlets for stress management that are available to them inside and outside of work, including social activities, exercise, yoga classes, flexible work schedules and vacation time," Creary said. "During tough times, employees often think that working more (being over-productive) will 'save them' from being laid off or will help them to keep their mind off of what's happening around them, but in all actuality, it creates burnout and, in many cases, leads to health problems."
She said The Conference Board supports research which shows that unhealthy employees increase companies' expenses; health employees are more productive; and a productive workplace is a more successful workplace.
"Ultimately, the ability of a company to survive downsizing will depend not only on the processes that are used in execution, but also on the level of commitment that the management team has to re-engaging employees at all levels," concluded Creary.
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