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While there were nearly 1.6 million permanent job cuts in the first half of 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of unemployed people at nearly 18 million. These staggering numbers indicate that those who are still employed almost certainly feel the strain of survivors’ guilt, according to global outplacement and business coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“Layoff survivors’ guilt is very real and very common, even in a strong economy when the likelihood of former colleagues finding other positions is strong,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president at the firm, in a statement. “However, now, the additional stress of working and living through a pandemic can make survivors’ guilt even more acute.”

This is because regardless of whether one colleague is let go or there are mass layoffs, there tends to be decreased morale for those who remain, Challenger said. “Even if the layoffs are considered ‘for cause,’ remaining workers not only may feel sorry for their former coworkers, they also must build new relationships and redistribute work, which creates additional stress,” he added.

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A June online survey of 150 human resources executives at companies of various sizes and industries nationwide by the firm asked businesses how they are addressing the virus. Although only 3% of respondents said some or all of the workers who were furloughed have been laid off, and 23% said some or all of the furloughed workers were being recalled, 20% said their companies have conducted permanent layoffs in response to the pandemic, up from 11% in March, Challenger said.

“Although many employees—and their employers—may have hoped that layoffs due to the pandemic were temporary, the stark reality is job losses are becoming permanent across multiple industries,” Challenger said.

The number of unemployed persons who were on temporary layoff decreased by 2.7 million in May to 15.3 million, following a sharp increase of 16.2 million in April, according to the labor bureau. Among those not on temporary layoff, the number of permanent job losers continued to rise, increasing by 295,000 in May to 2.3 million, the bureau reported.

“As this new normal of downsized work environments is recognized, employers should be proactive in dealing with the mixed emotions prevalent in their remaining staff,” Challenger said.

He offered the following advice on how employers can work through survivors’ guilt with their teams:

  • Acknowledge your existing workers are mourning those relationships. Employers should recognize that these feelings of guilt are real. Their employees may be wondering why others were laid off and they were spared. Anxiety may be mounting about when it will happen again. This can lead to low morale and potentially create disengaged, unmotivated workers. Company supervisors should be accessible to listen to these concerns and to emphasize how much the company values these workers.

  • Communicate the company’s plans to all workers. Create a communication plan that offers guidance on how supervisors should address recent layoffs to their existing workers. This is especially necessary if the company may lay off more workers down the road. No doubt questions will arise, and workers may feel the need to look elsewhere for work. To retain existing talent let workers know you value them.

  • Conduct engagement surveys. It may be challenging to gauge morale when many workers are still working from home. Distributing a survey to keep your finger on the pulse of morale and engagement can give employers valuable insight into how their teams are feeling. Supervisors should also conduct one-on-one videoconferencing to listen to workers’ feelings post-layoffs.

  • Adjust the resulting extra workload fairly and evenly.

  • Acknowledge good work, including the good work of those who were laid off. During a layoff that is strictly for business reasons and not the fault of those who were let go, acknowledge that those workers were essential and helped the company grow. Existing employees know if their colleagues were good workers and will appreciate knowing their employer recognized this as well. Be vocal in appreciating the contributions of those who remain.

If employers don’t recognize survivors are dealing with a range of emotions this can result in workers feeling motivated by fear instead of loyalty, Challenger said.

“This can lead to disengaged workers who will jump ship as soon as the economy improves, and opportunities present themselves,” he said. “At that point, employers could be left scrambling to fill the positions of the most competent employees to keep their businesses afloat.”