From survivor’s guilt to the fear of taking on new roles, responsibilities and wondering if, or when, you’re the next to be laid off. If you’re still aboard after the ship capsizes, learn how to meet the fear, use mindfulness to take good care, and adjust your approach so you can recover more resiliently.
I was in my 20s during The Great Recession, building high-performing websites for hoteliers all over North, Central and South America. From my open-floor-plan cubicle in a Chicago burb, I watched swaths of my coworkers meet their layoff fates in waves of tens to hundreds at a time. Hoteliers were quick to machete their marketing budgets as the economy tanked, and everyone cut back on travel.
Layoffs and involuntary work discharges were becoming the norm across the U.S. with a total loss of 8.8 million jobs at the recession’s lowest point in February 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even still, I remember quietly wondering: how do people deal with layoffs? As it seemed so foreign to me and like such a distant dream. What did they do next? How did they recover from what seemed like a severe blow to their self-worth? How did they survive?
By wave three, I was called into my manager’s office.
… either we’re solving a really complex problem, or we’re all getting fired.
Fast forward to today. The week before last. On the fifteenth anniversary of my Mother’s passing, to be specific. All departments at our mature tech startup received vague mentions from their leaders that a company-wide meeting would be held the following morning and to arrive no later than 9:30 a.m.
There was an energy of confusion in the office that morning. I was joking with two colleagues who sat next to me that this was one of two things: either we’re solving a really complex problem, or we’re all getting fired.
Turned out I was right about both.
You deserve to know why you or your teammates have been laid off
I remember, in slow motion, watching my manager walk up to my section of the office and calmly point toward the two women sitting to my left. He then reached out and tapped another woman and a man, asking them all to come to the main conference room. Another leader quickly approached, gathering my one, remaining colleague.
I was the only one left sitting there for seconds that seemed more like minutes. Then, my manager passed by again, this time with a group of others on my team who appeared to be heading to a different conference room. “Come with us,” he motioned.
It was in that small conference room, packed in with the remaining members of my team, that our manager spoke. His voice choking on emotion, hands shaking. He apologized for the false pretenses and confessed that any friends and coworkers not in the room would be laid off.
Make sure you’re clear on the why and, most importantly, make sure you believe it. You don’t want to be left to make up your own stories about why.
He was clear that the layoff had nothing to do with performance, but rather, the company had decided to take a different, more focused, strategic direction with our product and we were mission-critical to deliver on that direction in the next six months.
It took me about an hour to work through the “why?” around the layoff in my head. “Why them?” I could slowly make out the decisions around each choice:
- was their skill-set unique, or could it be covered by someone else who could also cover another role?
- what were they like to work with? Was their approach and work experience a good fit for the new strategy? Was it aligned with the company vision, mission or values?
- what was the quality of their relationships with their coworkers and managers?
- were they facilitating lightness and speed in the delivery of our product, our service model, or were they somehow weighing things down?
- were they compensatorily expensive compared to their value in delivering a new product over the next six months?
You deserve to know why regardless of which side of a layoff you happen to be on. Ask your manager for clarity. Ask their manager. If you have an older, more experienced mentor or someone in your organization you feel safe talking to, utilize this time to reach out to them and share your experience and concerns.
In my case, I generally understood the why behind the tough decisions various leaders had to make to let go teammates. In your case, you deserve to know why regardless of which side of a layoff or work discharge you happen to be on. Ask your manager for clarity. Ask their manager.
If you have an older, more experienced mentor or someone in your organization you feel safe talking to, utilize this time to reach out to them and share your experience and concerns. When you show up more vulnerably, you just may be met with the additional context or support you need to move through the initial confusion and shock.
Make sure you’re clear on the why and, most importantly, make sure you believe it. If you don’t, clarify further. You don’t want to be left to make up your own stories about why. And, when you find yourself telling a story inside your head, gently notice and redirect yourself to the truth of the why. Our myriad of stories aren’t helpful to us—or our former coworkers—while we allow the visible rapids and their invisible undertow to give way to calmer waters.
Layoff survivor’s guilt
I woke up alone the following morning, full of both uneasiness and possibility. Choppy headwaters combined with a murky undertow had rushed me out the mouth of what felt like the muddy Mississippi River, heaving me onto some uninhabited island somewhere in the Gulf … or so it felt.
Long before my alarm sounded, my eyes arose from sleep to dart back and forth inside my head. People whom I both respected and admired had been layed off the day before. Why not me?
“When people are laid off there is a sense of powerlessness about the situation, that it is out of their control, and that it is inherently unjust.”
James Laurence, sociologist and research fellow at the University of Manchester, quoted in The Atlantic Business section: Science Agrees: Being laid off is terrible.
I felt compelled to do something. But what?
Reach out and offer my condolences?
Help in some way?
At the same time, I didn’t want to come across as patronizing or paint my former teammates as victims in need of assistance.
Survivor’s guilt is a common and well-documented response of those left behind in a layoff. (S) And I was deep in it. I could feel the tug of those who’d left. I sensed they wanted answers, probably felt disconnected or devalued regardless of the communication that it wasn’t performance-based.
And, I knew that I couldn’t be supportive of them all, even if we had developed friendships working together. So, I either reached out to some or set a gentle boundary to those who’d reached out. I let them know I cared about them. I let them know that I also was shocked, and I needed time to process what had just happened.
Meeting the fear that comes post-layoff
Where your attention goes, your energy flows
Bringing awareness to our natural human tendency toward fear-induced responses to a layoff can help us bring compassion to the part of ourselves trying to strategize change, disappointment and the unknown out of our life.
In the Fall of 2019, the number of U.S. layoffs and terminations crept upwards of 1.8 million according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.
Compared to those who were employed (either full-time or part-time), roughly 1.4% of the previous year’s workforce were laid off or terminated in 2019.
The unfortunate outcomes of layoffs can be subtle and hard to pinpoint, but are certainly fear-driven. Being aware of our natural human tendency toward fear-induced responses to a layoff, or involuntary work terminations, can help us bring compassion to the part of ourselves trying to strategize change, disappointment and the unknown out of our work life.
For those remaining in the organization the very natural, fear-based responses to a layoff include:
- heightened job insecurity in anticipation of additional layoffs, risk aversion or paranoia.
- a focus on politics as a self-preservation strategy.
- loss of trust in management/the business.
- uneasiness around the increased job demands on those left behind.
- role ambiguity for those left behind.
The natural loss of institutional memory after a layoff can also incite fear in those on their team. Remaining employees may feel ungrounded and insecure as they scramble for documentation on the process, approach, login credentials, files, data or access to tools their former teammate used for the work that they’ll now need to learn to use.
Take care using the Hakomi process and its realms of experience
Post-layoff, the first step to take (after our awareness is brought to the fear we’re feeling) is to acknowledge the feelings of anxiety and insecurity that naturally arise. Name them, or better yet, write down what you’re scared or worried about in a journal.
Bring mindfulness to what you’re experiencing by:
- finding a quiet place to sit or lie down where you won’t be interrupted for at least 5-10 minutes.
- situate yourself in a comfortable position—whether on a chair, bed or cushions on the floor. You want to make sure you’re comfortable enough that you won’t be distracted with adjusting your sitting position once you begin, so you can focus your attention on what you’re feeling internally rather than externally.
- close your eyes.
- start noticing your breath. No need to change it, just follow it for a few breaths.
- scan your body. From head to toe or the other way around, just use your attention to sense your body.
- get curious while scanning your body. Take notice of what calls your attention: is it a body sensation? The sense of emotion? An image? Words or a message? A movement? An impulse? A longing? A memory?
- stay with it. Deepen your curiosity by staying with what comes up. If it’s a body sensation, notice where it is in your body. Notice the qualities of the sensation: is it uncomfortable or tense? Warm or cool? Big or small? Does it have a shape? A color? If it had a voice, what would it say? What does it want you to know? What does it need?
- write it down. When you’ve stayed with it as long as you can, maintaining curiosity, gently acknowledge what you’ve discovered and begin to come out of mindfulness by noticing the sounds, smells or sensations in the room around you. You can wiggle your toes or fingers and gently open your eyes to come back into the room. Then, grab a journal and write down what you’ve discovered.
You can do this Hakomi process-inspired exercise throughout the day whenever you notice these sensations, emotions, messages, images, etc. come up in your body.
Take loving action
While this Hakomi process-inspired exercise gives you clarity about what you’re fearing and why; getting it down on paper can help you move into loving external action.
Make a point to take any realistic actions you can on your behalf.
- Reviewing what you’ve written down, can you sense or identify what each part of you needs? What does it want you to know? Is there an impulse that comes up that might be helpful for that part? If you were your own best friend, teacher or loving parent, what would you do for this part of yourself to calm it, show it you care or meet its need?
- Again, write it down.
Then, make a point to take any realistic actions you can on your behalf—whether that means finding ways to comfort yourself or talking with someone who can offer perspective, space or support. Maybe your loving action looks like addressing your manager at work and letting them know what information or support you need to feel more at ease.
Taking loving action on behalf of ourselves and our needs is being our own advocate. By practicing this approach over time, you’ll find a new source of personal power, ease and resiliency within yourself that you’ll come to enjoy.
Want to recover more quickly after a layoff or termination?
Curious to work with someone who can help you explore the why and what? And get clear on the how of getting back up again more resilient than before? Want guidance on ways to use your down-time to feed your soul’s work and call in what wants to happen in your career? Schedule time for a Consultation or a ReConnection™ session with me.