COVID-19 has resulted in the loss of over 210,000 lives, but also the loss of livelihood for many Americans. According to September data from the U.S. Labor Department, 2.4 million people are experiencing long-term joblessness (defined as being out of work for at least 27 weeks). And by November, that number could more than double.

While the employees who are still employed may feel grateful or fortunate, Challenger, Gray & Christmas present another emotion that these workers may experience: guilt. The executive outplacement firm recently recommended that companies acknowledge their remaining employees may be dealing with survivor’s guilt and find a way to deal with it.

Contributing factors

Survivor’s guilt, or workplace survivor syndrome, can take more than one shape, but it’s typically related to a traumatic event. “When a person survives an event that others did not, it can lead to feelings of guilt,” says John Myers, Chicago president at Keystone Partners, which provides outplacement and leadership development services. On one hand, Myers says survivors may wonder why they escaped the “chopping block” when many of their friends and co-workers did not. “Or they may be thinking, ‘Oh great, now I will need to do this person’s job as well as my own.’”

Regardless of how the surviving employees view the situation, the results can be highly emotional. “This can lead to irritability and anger, feelings of helplessness and disconnection, fear and confusion, lack of motivation, problems sleeping, and various physical health-related problems,” Myers explains.

Granted, people have been losing their jobs ever since Adam was fired from tending the Garden of Eden. However, the particular circumstances at play in our current environment contribute to a different range of emotions. “2020 has been described by some as an ‘emotional marathon,’ and the effects of this uniquely difficult year are being felt within multiple areas of everyday life,” says Kia Roberts, J.D., former NFL director of investigations, and founder and principal at Triangle Investigations, a group of lawyers and investigators performing misconduct investigations in workplaces, schools, and other organizations.

Not only are the remaining employees feeling guilt and dreading the extra work that going to land on their plates. “Many employees are also fearful that they will be the next employee to go,” she says. And these individuals may be dealing with additional issues. “An employee might be grieving a loved one who passed away from coronavirus, juggling at-home schooling, or feeling the drain of a year of extremely heightened racial tensions,” Roberts explains.

Preventative measures

Companies can do a lot to calm employees by handling the layoff process with a degree of grace and compassion. “Be kind and considerate towards laid-off employees during the termination process,” Roberts advises. “Impersonal and curt termination messages are painful for the employee on the receiving end of them and can be detrimental to employee morale overall.” She says it’s important to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Myers agrees, and recommends developing a plan that minimizes the impacts of layoffs upfront.

“Such a plan starts before the layoffs by assuring their friends and co-workers who leave the company are treated in a respectful and compassionate way, with a full array of financial and career transition support.” He says it’s important to understand that layoffs affect more than just the people you’re letting go. “There’s an impact on remaining employees, the community, and your employer brand reputation.”

Compassion and communication are key

Theresa Lina, CEO of Lina Group, is a Silicon Valley business strategist who has advised executives at such companies as Apple, Amazon, Google, and Nike, and is the author of “Be the Go-To: How to Own Your Competitive Market, Charge More, and Have Customers Love You For It.” She says the three most important tools leaders can use at a time like this are compassion, perspective-taking, and communication. “It’s tempting to just keep pushing forward, but the organization has just experienced trauma.” Lina recommends putting yourself in your employee’s shoes so you can feel and show empathy.

“Use authentic, open, and consistent communication to help employees process what’s happened, taking guidance from your HR team and middle management.” And she provides a practical example of how to deliver the tough news. “Marriott President and CEO Arne Sorenson’s message to employees when it was clear that COVID-19 was having a devastating impact on the business was a masterclass in leadership,” Lina says.

Understandably, companies are likely to be financially strapped. However, Roberts recommends looking for creative ways to support the employees’ mental and emotional health. “Numerous large employers have rolled out and announced a range of brand-new offerings for supporting stressed-out employees, including offering free one-on-one therapy sessions for employees and their families, mandating weekly manager check-ins, and providing employees with free subscriptions to meditation apps.”

Right now, the remaining employees need to know that you care about their well-being and the emotions they may feel. “I recommend survivor training, health and wellness programs, work-hour flexibility, access to mental health resources such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), mandatory vacation and personal time, creating opportunities to connect with others through online communities and creative social events,” Myers says.

Finally, Myers recommends that companies consider how these layoffs will change how they do business. “Organizational structures need to be revisited and priorities reexamined to assure that ‘doing more with less’ is not the rallying cry.”