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"Am I Next?" How People Managers Can Support Their Team After Layoffs

Updated: Mar 15

By Bill Greene | Principal, Mind Share Partners

Edited by Bernie Wong | Senior Manager of Insights & Principal, Mind Share Partners, and Nina Tomaro | Marketing & Communications Lead, Mind Share Partners

mental-health-at work
Photo via Pexels

The Impact of Layoffs on Employee Mental Health

Workers have continued to ride a long wave of layoffs over the past several months, especially among tech and financial services organizations. The layoffs bring with them their wave of news articles, social media posts, and other missives. You’ve likely seen the explanations for the layoffs, reports on severance packages, tips on job searches, offers of help, notes acknowledging the personal shock and grief, and sometimes, the opportunities that come with losing a job.

The attention, understandably, is on those who are leaving. But what about those who remain tasked with picking up the pieces—often including the work of their former colleagues—and moving ahead? Overlooking the long-term mental health impact of layoffs on those who stay hurts the individuals and the organization. This article identifies some of those risks, especially on employee mental health, and offers steps managers can take to mitigate them.

Three Steps to Support Employees After Layoffs

There are three basic steps people managers can take following a layoff to ensure they are rebuilding the trust of their people and mitigating the impact of layoffs on employee mental health.

1. Check In With Yourself

Of course, there is an urgency to keep the business going following a layoff. But this is a situation in which leaders often need to go slow first to go fast. The starting point here is to check in with yourself:

  • Don’t ignore or suppress your own feelings of loss, uncertainty, or sadness. Your self-awareness and vulnerability during this time is a resource that will serve you well in connecting and reassuring your team (more on this below).

  • Give yourself the space to reflect can allow you to show up more intentionally and supportively for your team.

  • Be patient. Your team members and culture (which you play a key role in cultivating) are in transition. It can take time for you and your team members to process the events and “move on.”

2. Create Extra Space To Check In With Your People

You regularly check in with your employees if you're a good manager. But following a layoff, you need to create additional space for checking in. This can take several forms:

  • Prioritize more time to check in. This may be adding specific check-in time on meeting agendas or creating visible open time on your calendar for pop-up conversations. You can also create space by leaving your office door open and by walking around more. The goal is to create additional opportunities to converse with team members, whether you engage them proactively or reduce the barriers (and awkwardness) for your team members to start a conversation with you.

  • If you’re comfortable with it, share your personal story and emotions about the change. Good managers are open about their own experiences with a layoff, including their vulnerable feelings of loss, guilt, or grief. Vulnerability is an ally in times like this—as long as what you share doesn’t make the conversation all about you, closing off the connection with employees.

  • Listen and validate your team members’ perspectives and feelings (even if you don’t fully share them) and to connect people to other support (if needed, like an employee assistance program). You do not, and should not, pretend to have all the answers, or to “fix” whatever an employee has to share (especially hard if you are a “problem-solving-get-it-done-now!” kind of person).

  • Provide transparency and explanation where possible. Research has shown that the negative mental and physical health outcomes that survivors experience can be mitigated when the layoffs are seen as having been fair, transparent, understandable, and well-planned; when there’s been existing trust in the organization; job security and optimism about the organization’s future; and your responsiveness to employees’ needs amidst change the change. Of course, while these are helpful narratives to reinforce, make sure you’re sharing them truthfully.

  • For more details on implementing these strategies, download our toolkit:

3. Double Down on a Healthy Culture of Work

Layoffs impact the experience of work itself for remaining team members, including greater work demands, role conflict, dysfunctional leadership, and lower connection. These workplace factors have been shown to exacerbate or even cause mental health challenges—on top of coping with layoffs.

To facilitate a healthy experience of work amidst layoffs, do your best to:

  • Give team members space to cope. Some team members may need time off to process the layoffs; others may want to dive back into work; others still may need time to talk. Give them the autonomy and space to cope in whatever way works best for them.

  • Communicate clearly and frequently. As roles and responsibilities shift, be explicit about job responsibilities, tasks and timelines, order of priority, and other considerations.

  • Be flexible. Similarly, as norms and processes adjust with a new team composition, do what you can to create flexible and inclusive ways of working for your team members. These can extend to how team members communicate, about what and how often; where they work; what kinds of work they’re involved in; and more.

The Mental Health Impacts of Surviving a Layoff

There is an unspoken cost to surviving a layoff—unspoken because it’s often presumed that keeping a job is its own sufficient reward. Knowing that a job is safe for now may be immediate relief, but a wider array of mental health outcomes usually overshadows the initial relief. Research (1, 2, 3) shows that layoffs can cause anxiety, depression, rumination, alcohol misuse, problematic eating habits, and overwork in remaining workers. But what are the emotions and beliefs that underlie these outcomes?

Guilt and grief. After the event, many workers question, “Why not me?” or “Could I have done something differently?” Keeping a job and a paycheck doesn’t automatically make a person feel grateful or immune from feeling the loss of colleagues and friends—some they may have worked with for years. When grieving, requests to “move forward by focusing on the business” can be hard to hear.

Confusion and uncertainty. No matter how sensitively a layoff is handled, there will be gaps to fill and new relationships to build. Even if there is a sense that layoffs are coming, it is still a shock to recognize the old future is gone. People will be disoriented, cautious, and maybe suspicious of the new future. Quiet quitting may seem better than “going the extra mile.”

Distrust and disengagement. When someone joins an organization, they make a deal. Part of it is formal, including job role, title, location, hours, benefits, and pay. Another part, often equal in weight, is informal—the social contract. This includes mission, values, reputation, and, more importantly, how those factors show up at work.

  • Do the actions of leaders match their words?

  • Do the values promoted on the company website translate into day-to-day employee experiences?

  • As an employee, do I feel like people care about me?

Whatever form the social contract takes, layoffs tear at the seams. In fact, some research shows that layoff survivors experience a 41% decline in job satisfaction, 20% decline in job performance, 36% decline in organizational commitment, and 31% increase in voluntary turnover.

“Employment at will” isn’t abstract anymore. Workers have seen how this idea plays out in real-time. All features designed to attract and keep employees—catered lunches, good coffee, on-site gyms and other amenities—now look like window dressings. The remaining employees will be wary and look for new evidence about the “real deal” with the organization going forward.

Ultimately, layoffs “send a message that hard work and good performance do not guarantee their jobs,” say Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher and researcher Shalene Gupta.

In times of crisis, people turn to their managers to get information and to gather impressions.

Information includes what is happening, why, and how people will be affected. Impressions, often non-verbal, offer clues about the leader and their integrity, character, and values. Most managers cover the information requirement. Great managers know both levels of communication are in play and are thoughtful and intentional about words and actions together. They recognize that what they say and do creates ripples that affect other people, who create their own ripples.

It’s easy to take credit for being a good manager when times are good. The best managers lead with empathy and demonstrate their impact when times are difficult and uncomfortable. They are creating or recreating the connections, a sense of purpose, and healthy work experience—the ripples—enabling employees to thrive.

Additional Readings and Resources

For Organizations

  • [Link] “Layoffs That Don’t Break Your Company,” Harvard Business Review

  • [Link] “What Companies Still Get Wrong About Layoffs,” Harvard Business Review

  • [Link] “How to Support Your Remaining Employees After a Layoff,” Harvard Business Review

  • [Link] “The Toll of Layoff Anxiety,” BBC Worklife

For Individuals

  • [Link] “How to Deal with Layoff Anxiety,” Harvard Business Review

  • [Link] “My Colleagues Were Laid Off. Am I Next?” Psychology Today


  • [Link] “Organizational Downsizing, Work Conditions, and Employee Outcomes: Identifying Targets for Workplace Intervention among Survivors,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

  • [Link] “Health Impact Assessment of the Layoff and Bumping Process,” City of Cincinnati Health Department

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