• Dina Smith

How to cope when your close coworker is laid off (and you’re still employed)

(Originally published in Fast Company.)

With widespread layoffs prompted by COVID-19, many of us have lost our valued coworkers and work friends. Undoubtedly, these layoffs are a tragedy for those left without jobs, but retained employees are likewise affected. Yes, layoff survivors may feel a level of relief and gratitude, but this is in addition to a host of other emotions.

Studies show that companies suffer numerous adverse effects following a layoff, from declines in productivity and quality to drops in profitability and stock price. So while it’s important for companies to actively focus on layoff survivors, few leaders pay as much attention as they should. This is why you need to take a proactive role in expediting your rebound from the organizational trauma of a layoff.

Here are five strategies to help you cope with the emotional aspects of losing your coworkers and move forward.

ACCEPT YOUR EMOTIONS Well-meaning friends and family may exclaim how lucky you are to still have your job, but feeling “survivor guilt” is a common reaction for employees who survive a layoff.

You’re grieving, and going through a range of emotions is normal. Many of your colleagues are likely experiencing similar feelings of loss, anger, worry, and guilt, so take the time to share your feelings with your coworkers and provide each other with comfort. If you lead a team, demonstrate your awareness and empathy for your teammates’ layoff-related emotions.

INVEST YOUR ENERGY IN CONSTRUCTIVE ACTIVITIES In the wake of a layoff, it can be hard not to spend time discussing or criticizing the layoff process, but this is unproductive and will likely only make you feel worse. Don’t waste your time trying to understand the logic of who was laid off and who remained.

Often, that logic doesn’t exist—sometimes, people were just in the wrong place at the right time, or their higher salaries enabled the company to make more significant cost reductions. Instead, surround yourself with positive, supportive people and focus on what you can control. For example, if the layoff has you feeling stressed and fearful about your own job security, take action and develop a plan in the event that fear one day becomes a reality.

REMEMBER YOUR PROFESSIONAL PURPOSE What’s important to you about your work? What’s the larger problem you are helping to solve, and how do your efforts make a positive difference for others? Answering these questions will remind you what gives your work meaning so that you can shift your attention back to what you are trying to accomplish.

It’s also useful to remember the people in your life, especially those you work to provide and care for. Framing your professional purpose in this way will equip you with optimism and energy to refocus and overcome other career obstacles. Furthermore, finding meaning and purpose in your life’s work is associated with better physical and mental health.

SPEND TIME ON YOUR CURRENT RELATIONSHIPS Due to the layoff and associated restructuring, you will likely need to establish and strengthen new relationships in your organization. First, think about specific organizational or performance goals, for you and for your team, and identify the new people or groups with whom you need to strengthen relationships. Then, consider your short- and long-term career goals in light of the restructuring. Ask yourself: Are there new relationships to build? For both organizational and career goals, consider your relationships up and down and especially across your organization.

Research has shown that a strong network is not only critical to career success but also contributes to feelings of well-being and fulfillment at work.

In addition to tending to your internal network, proactively reach out to your former colleagues and offer tangible forms of support. For example, you might offer to review their résumé, write a recommendation on LinkedIn, connect them with your network, or serve as a sounding board as they determine their next steps. Being laid off can have a significant emotional impact, and your former colleagues will appreciate your reaching out.

FINE-TUNE YOUR ROLE The simple fact is that more work remains for employees who survive a layoff. As an organization looks to continue meeting market demands and customer expectations following a layoff, work is typically divided up and distributed among the remaining employees. Juggling additional work on top of an already full plate creates stress. And most likely, remaining employees can’t do everything their former coworkers completed on a daily basis.

However within these difficult circumstances, there are fresh opportunities for you. Consider what new skills or experiences align with your career interests and goals and proactively seek them out. In addition to thinking about what you want to take on, analyze what tasks or projects you can let go. You’ll need to dispassionately prioritize and shed activities or legacy projects that do not deliver value. Reach out to your manager to discuss your ideas for crafting your job and delivering value, keeping in mind your organization’s most strategic needs, and remember that your manager is likely stressed also.

Layoffs are rarely a positive experience for anyone involved—those laid off or the survivors. As a survivor, you’ll likely experience a range of mixed and disorienting emotions, face a heavier workload, and miss your valued colleagues. However, following the strategies above will help you rebound emotionally and move forward productively, contributing to both your career and your company’s success.

© 2020 Cognitas LLC