Survivor Syndrome

For almost a year, Susana Rosales, an administrative assistant in a factory in Barcelona, watched with suspicion as her colleagues were dismissed one by one. The workers, the commercials, her colleagues in the administration department and even the head of marketing. “Every time she attended the dismissal of a colleague she thought she would be next . I felt lucky to still be working in the company, but it was really stressful to think that any day it could be my turn. This situation affected my day-to-day life and caused me anxiety and insomnia,” says Rosales.

As in the case of Susana, the interruption of normal working life due to ” downsizing ” causes employees to have to adapt to a new situation which can have a negative effect on the well-being and satisfaction not only of those who become unemployed, but also of those who keep their jobs. This phenomenon, first studied by Noer , is known as the ” Survivor’s Syndrome “. It is characterised by high levels of anxiety and stress (or burnout), lack of motivation and emotional commitment to the organisation, generalised dissatisfaction and distrust of the company.

According to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) “many factors affect the well-being of employees, and the economic and social environment is extremely important in this respect”. Therefore, it recommends: “Work-related psychosocial factors, economic contexts and social contexts causing distress should be modified to reduce levels of dissatisfaction “.

The truth is that, given the impossibility of changing a country’s economic or political landscape in times of recession, many people are affected by this syndrome. A study by Jussi Vahtera, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, found that “in times of crisis those who keep their jobs are five times more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease”. The causes? Increased stress, excessive workload and continued job insecurity.

Stress and burnout and its relationship to workers’ health

As we commented in the article “Burnout: how to detect it and take action” stress and job satisfaction have become an important factor during the last decades in the labour context. Psychosocial risks and burnout are among the most difficult problems in the field of occupational health and safety, as they affect people and organisations in a significant way.

For the worker it causes consequences on a physical, emotional or behavioural level, and for the company, it negatively affects the organisation, the work environment, the performance or the interpersonal relations . In this context, feelings arise in employees such as indifference, despair in the face of work, greater demotivation or an increase in the desire to leave work that can lead to abandonment of the profession in many cases. In many companies there is a high rate of absenteeism due to this phenomenon.

Crisis? More work and more uncertainty for survivors

Many companies are not immune from the economic crisis in which the European Union is immersed, and so redundancies are becoming commonplace within companies. The job survivor in times of crisis bears the added pressure of often having to work longer hours to do the tasks of colleagues who are no longer there. This added pressure and the fear of being fired at any time can cause irritability, difficulty concentrating and, in some cases, anxiety attacks,” as Julie Monti explained to Today’s Chicago Woman magazine .

This syndrome is becoming so important that it is attracting the interest of scientists, organisations, human resources departments and even governments. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality U.S. provides scientific evidence linking the number of workers to discomfort at work . This study shows the close association between a deficient provision of human resources and the consequent appearance of stress, burnout , psychosomatic symptoms, loss of well-being and dissatisfaction.

Another study, in this case on the impact of restructuring on companies and on workers’ health, prepared by Labour Asociados for the Spanish Ministry of Employment and which includes data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), shows that “the crisis has made workers face the possibility of losing their jobs with fear and stress”.

In addition, it concludes that “more accidents, injuries and even deaths can occur at work due to staff cuts”.

What can businesses do to help the survivors?

Experts recommend promoting greater communication, employee involvement and recognition of boiling emotions in the workplace to help survivors reduce or eliminate their symptoms and improve the work environment . “This fear, caused by the lack of communication from the company towards the employee, can end up generating anxiety, distress, panic attacks and crying episodes”, says psychologist Roger Puigdecanet from the Psychological Care Unit.

The fact that employees do not feel valued is also a trigger for many psychological problems within the organization. Several studies highlight the importance of transformational leadership in reducing stress, improving self-esteem, job satisfaction and increasing productivity. This type of leadership is characterised by a high degree of communication with employees and the influence on the beliefs and interpretations of the meaning of work held by workers, in a way that increases well-being.

According to Peiró, professor at the University of Valencia, “the true transformational leader strives to do what is right and just for all stakeholders in the organization and can gladly sacrifice his own interests for the collective good of his team or his organization”

After the crisis, many companies are aware of the effects that this situation can have on productivity, and are increasingly trying to hire professionals who specialize in motivating people who survive the adjustment of personnel. The director of Advantage Consultants , Sylvia Taudien, comments that “companies are asking us for individual or group coaching actions to bring the team back together, to teach how to assimilate change and to manage fear”.

In addition, Taudien regrets that “we are facing surprising cases of highly trained and well paid managers who in difficult times do not know how to lead and transmit confidence to their team and instead are immersed in their own pain about the situation of the company”.


If companies are willing to make layoffs (especially on a large scale), it is more than likely that employees will suffer some effects of the survivor syndrome. In any case, the impact of this syndrome can be reduced if measures are taken to understand it and to redirect any negative consequences it may cause in the well-being of the workers.

Proper communication and an effective leadership style can lead to improvements in the way workers perceive this situation and thus minimize the consequences on their occupational health. Improving the well-being of employees will also have a positive effect on the health of the organisation, i.e. it will positively affect its performance in the market.