From education to employment

Survivor guilt and the aftermath of Covid-19

John Hackston

Covid-19 has been a body blow to many companies around the world, not least in the UK. The economy shed almost three-quarters of a million jobs between March and July, and with the phasing-out of the furlough scheme, it seems inevitable that more redundancies are on the way. Even for those still in work, the situation is far from rosy. Many will have very mixed emotions about their jobs and be finding it difficult to keep engaged, in part because of survivor guilt.

Survivor guilt, or survivor syndrome, was first noted in people who had survived traumatic events such as a plane crash or a natural disaster when others had not. Survivors often feel guilty about still being alive when others have died, or they may think that they did not do enough to help others (and so are in some way responsible for their deaths). But similar (though less intense) guilt is also often seen in the workplace when workers are made redundant or laid off. Those who remain behind feel guilty that they still have a job when others have lost theirs. Often the survivor may see those who have gone as being more skilled or more worthy than they themselves are, adding to the burden of guilt. This is one of the reasons why employees who survive downsizing rarely perform as well as organizations expect them to.

In the current climate, with organisations sometimes struggling to stay afloat, remaining employees are often asked to carry out additional work, sometimes being told that they should feel grateful to still have a job. At The Myers-Briggs Company, we wondered whether survivors would feel guilty or annoyed that they remained at work, and how these feelings related to their personality. Since April, we have been collecting data on reactions to the Covid-19 crisis from people who already knew their personality type, as assessed by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) framework. Two of the questions that we asked were these:

  • I am annoyed or angry that I am still working, when others have been laid off or furloughed
  • I feel guilty about having a job, when others have been laid off or furloughed

The results showed that people are much more likely to feel guilty than to feel annoyed. Only 5% of the sample agreed or strongly agreed with the first statement, but 33% agreed or strongly agreed with the second. A third of the group were affected, to at least some extent, by survivor guilt.

There were two additional significant findings. Firstly, survivor guilt is increasing over time. People who completed the survey back in April were significantly less likely to feel guilty than people who completed it in late July. Survivor guilt is building and when and if things return to something approximating normality, the accumulated guilt is unlikely to suddenly vanish, leading to longer-term issues well after lockdown is over. Secondly, there was a clear difference in terms of personality, as assessed by the Thinking-Feeling dimension of the MBTI model. People with a Thinking preference prefer to make decisions based on objective logic, whereas those with a Feeling preference prefer to make decisions based on values and on how those decisions will affect people. We found that respondents with a Feeling personality preference were significantly more likely to experience guilt than those with a Thinking preference. 44% of those with a Feeling preference agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, but only 21% of those with a Thinking preference.

There are several reasons why this personality difference is important. Managers and executives are far more likely to have a Thinking than a Feeling personality preference and may therefore be less prone to survivor guilt themselves. The survey results were a wake-up call for me personally; respondents with my type preferences (INTP) were the least likely group to experience survivor guilt and therefore may be the least likely to notice it in others. Tools like the MBTI assessment can give managers a useful framework to better understand how they differ from others and how their employees may not see the world in the same way that they do.

What then should HR staff and managers do, especially those who may be less conscious of survivor guilt themselves? First, let those still in the organization know that the people who were laid off were treated as well and as much like a human being as possible; Feeling employees will very much appreciate knowing this. And don’t just say you’ve done this if you haven’t. People with a Feeling preference have a knack for smelling out inauthenticity and if you lie, that will be worse than saying nothing at all. Also, reassure people (but only if this is really the case) that even if they had been prepared to make sacrifices themselves, this would not have changed the outcome. And try not to congratulate people on still having a job; this may just add to any guilty feelings.

In all of this, it is important to consider the psychological contract that an organization has with its employees. Everyone has a regular contract, dealing with their salary and working conditions, but there is also a psychological contract, the intangible agreement on values, and “the way we do things round here” that is held implicitly between an employee and their employer. In making any decision on layoffs, think about how (if at all) you might be violating this contract, and explain to staff why you are having to do this. Individuals with a Feeling preference might walk away from their jobs and the organization without explanation or warning if they think their values have been compromised.

None of this is easy, and in the current situation, where people are working remotely it will be made more difficult by not being able to communicate face to face. Make use of all the channels you have available to communicate. Even though conversations may be difficult, have those conversations; don’t just rely on terse emails. Use video where staff are happy to do so.

Survivor guilt does not take place in a vacuum. It affects many aspects of how an individual feels and how well they carry out their job. In our research, we found that those experiencing survivor guilt were also more likely to agree that they were worried about their co-workers and more anxious in general, and that they were finding it more difficult to concentrate and to remain focused – issues that could affect performance. At a time when organizations need everyone to pull together, it is important to take survivor guilt seriously.

By John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company

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