Understanding survivor syndrome - Museums Association

Understanding survivor syndrome

Survivor syndrome, also known as survivor’s guilt, is the response of a person when they believe they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not, often feeling self-guilt.

In a workplace setting the majority of cases it relates to feelings around surviving a redundancy programme.

This information has been produced to help individuals understand their response and for those that lead, manage, or supervise to support those experiencing survivor syndrome. It is important to remember that being a leader, manager or supervisor does not preclude the experience of survivor syndrome.

What causes survivor syndrome?

Over and above the guilt associated with not being made redundant the following contribute to the emotional, psychological, and physical impacts:

  • Loss of relationships and friendships – saying goodbye to someone you have worked with is hard
  • Loss of status and sense of belonging
  • Working outside of comfort or competence zone
  • Additional workload
  • Continued uncertainty

In addition the lack of support for those left behind and the narrative that ‘they are the lucky ones’ when it may very clearly not feel like this, compounds the feelings of guilt and feeling ‘wobbled/anxious’ amplifies the survivor syndrome.

What can you do for yourself?

  • Acknowledge that the way you are feeling is real, understandable and look for support.
  • Use techniques, for example like the emotions wheel, to identify the emotions you are experiencing to help you articulate them, or even point to them, if saying them out loud is too painful or difficult.
  • Capture the reasons you feel this way – writing them down releases brain space, capacity and short-circuits the ongoing repeat of your emotions.
  • Putting them on paper enable you literally to take a step back and look at the situation from a different perspective which can help you begin to create strategies or solutions to address them.
  • Allow time for grief and grieving – do not let anyone tell you how long is acceptable and remember that grief comes and goes.
  • Feeling angry on behalf of your colleagues is natural – ensure that this emotion does not have a negative effect on your wellbeing or your existing relationships within the organisation.
  • Resist the temptation to “avenge” your colleagues or sabotage new ways of working. This helps no-one.
  • Find out as much information about the decisions around the redundancy programme and the vision for the future – this may help you accept the reasons your role was not identified as part of the redundancy programme.
  • Think about the difference you will be able to make for the collection, the audiences, and communities you serve – this should focus your contribution and give you a sense of purpose.
  • Find someone to talk to about how you are feeling – your line manager, employee assistance programme, human resources, or others for example your Trade union.
  • Take time to re-group, re-coup and adjust to new way of working.
  • Be kind to yourself and accept that even if you are one of the ‘lucky ones’ it is ok to feel like this, you too have experienced the trauma and loss of a redundancy programme – but it is natural also to feel relieved and even happy that you are still in post – this doesn’t make you a bad person.
  • This is a difficult time for everyone. We need open and honest, non-judgemental, and unconditional two-way communication. As a museum professional help your leader, manager or supervisor help you and the way of doing this is about being honest and authentic about your feelings and the challenges you are facing.

What can you do as a leader, manager, or supervisor?

  • This is a difficult time for everyone. As a leader, manager, or supervisor your priority is the wellbeing of staff and volunteers.
  • Be aware that survivor syndrome is commonplace during and following a redundancy programme.
  • Be aware of the problems and challenges that may arise due to restructuring, for example, potential job description changes, increased workloads, reallocation of teams etc.
  • Look for signs of your team not coping, behaving differently, increased absence, poor timekeeping, a dip in job performance and delivery. All of these signs should be explored as a function of good management but if these are observable following a redundancy programme the reason for these behaviours may be associated with survivor syndrome.
  • With this in mind any conversations about performance should be explore fully, without judgement or assumption, open questions and an open mind will enable exploration and open discussion which should lead to the provision of support and a change in the behaviour and return to good performance.
  • Clear and honest communication is always vitally important. A vision for the future that allows people see where their role fits in is key for boosting morale and raising performance. During the redundancy period ‘survivors’ can often feel ignored, as the focus has been on the staff exiting. Don’t ignore the issue.
  • The time it takes to return to good performance really does depend on the reasons the individual is experiencing survivor syndrome and so the discussion of what it is, is key. For example, if it is about not doing a task or activity they have previously enjoyed or valued then it might be more straightforward to address compared to if these feelings have come from observing a work colleague be badly treated as part of the redundancy process.
  • This is a difficult time for everyone. We need open and honest, non-judgemental, and unconditional two-way communication. As a leader, manager, or supervisor your priority is the wellbeing of staff and volunteers.

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