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Rebuilding after the layoff. (And allowing for grief).


Empty office during a layoff.
There's nothing easy about a layoff - for anyone.

At VitalConex, we like to get a point across but keep it light - even use humor as much as possible - a vital part of who we are. But as you may have read about using humor, there are some times when it's just not ready for prime time. So, in this blog, we are going to address something that is impacting more and more of us - layoffs. And, our focus today is more on being psychologically safe with yourself and others when navigating this difficult time - grieving the layoff.


A core tenet of our work with clients is to help them dismantle the myth of “me the human” and “me the employee” as somehow being two separate people. For example, when “me as human” loses a pet, spouse, or loved one, those around will likely stop and fully acknowledge that grief. And they will also tend to extend that empathy to include the grief of a job loss. By now, many of us have heard of the five stages of grief - though we’re referring to them as elements of grief because the process is often not linear like stages imply.

But this blog is focused on the grieving that is also experienced by the individuals who remain at a company after there have been layoffs, or even when they’ve been faced with any number of “change management initiatives.” Our nervous systems process this as loss, and grieving occurs. What was... is no longer. The fact that this is happening at work makes the experience no less impactful.

In fact, when it is happening at work, there is another complicating element: fear. As leaders of teams following layoffs (and fellow colleagues who remain), please be aware that the five elements of grief will be heaped onto a fresh bed of fear. Workplace trust will be low. Distraction will be high. Below are some helpful ways to reframe some of the workplace behavior following layoffs in the context of grief and some tips for how to respond more skillfully.

Embrace the Fear

It’s likely the remaining employees will keep this emotion hidden. So, as leaders, there are three guiding principles to embrace from the start:

  1. Assume the fear is there, no matter how carefully concealed.

  2. Don’t assume everyone feels lucky to still have their job. Some may, but don’t assume they all do.

  3. Emphasize, reiterate, and remind your team at every possible opportunity of all the things that remain unchanged in the change, itself. Our nervous systems need to adapt a bit before we can get truly excited about the good things that will potentially happen with the change. Your team members are unlikely to start from a zen-like place embracing the changes as the 'fertile unknown.’ They’re most likely spooked, instead - which is totally normal and ok.

Denial while accepting

This sounds somewhat counter-intuitive but it will be somewhat easier to recognize as people will be processing with their trusted colleagues a true sense of shock about certain people not being with them each day like they had been before. Patience and empathy are what’s called for here - for yourself and your colleagues. The range of feeling frustrated to feeling resolved is normal, even healthy.


Anger is around the corner

Besides obvious displays of anger, expect to see a lot of “skepticism” expressed by the remaining team members. When interpreted as the anger element of grieving, expect to offer more patience, be as unambiguous as possible in your communications, and give the team member the benefit of the doubt that he/she/they aren’t just being naysayers, are “afraid of change,” and just being “difficult." Remember, sometimes the job of a leader is to just listen - a lot harder than always having the answers.


Bargaining can be a strength

Because decisions get made elsewhere and people impacted often feel no sense of control or weren’t consulted about how the change would impact them, this element will often show up as resistance. Not going along with things right away is how those left behind regain a sense of perceived power. It’s exceptionally important in the post-layoff world to be willing to negotiate details with the team member so that they are participants in their work destinies.

Depression by feeling disempowered

On some level, the pre-layoff workplace represented “what I signed up for.” And again, while not all of the change will automatically be seen as negative, for many, they may experience symptoms of depression as they adapt to what feels like what “someone else has signed them up for.” Time and patience are what’s needed here. This is an internal journey for the employee, so forced positivity can be invalidating rather than uplifting. Remember, trust is low right now. Make sure throughout the process that employees are aware of EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) or any other resources your particular company makes available as forms of support.


True Acceptance - a sign of inclusion

This will be the birthplace for new innovative ideas to emerge in the new workplace order. It will first show up as the absence of some of the above-mentioned behaviors, and then more positively by enthusiasm for some of the new things they see as possible that weren’t before. Leaders - what happens here is the payoff for being attuned and skillful to all the elements of grief your team has gone through.


The VITAL5 ROUNDUP– Grieving the layoff


1. One human, one approach– Layoffs are a loss like any other - don't forget the humans impacted and "left behind", as well.

2. Embrace the fear – acknowledge the natural place fear takes in any change and allow for it often over time.

3. Denial, anger & depression a trifecta that takes on strong ties if not allowed in - if authentically addressed, there is real growth on the other side.

4. Bargaining as a strength– it is normal for employees to feel powerless after a layoff - including them in decisions, team direction, and being flexible is a strength.

5. Acceptance through inclusion – the more your employees are included in what is happening, the next steps and decisions, the faster acceptance arrives.


VitalConex is a connect-and-create company. To learn more about the "peanut butter cup" of successful teams, check us out at www.vitalconex.com

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