Congratulations, you've survived the wave of layoffs in India. Now what?
Here’s how you can support your colleagues, and protect your own mental health
It felt like the usual Monday morning Zoom call. You went through the motions: combed your hair, washed your face, put on a formal shirt and joined the meeting. But something was eerily different. Two of your colleagues were AWOL. That’s when your reporting manager and Harish from HR dropped the bomb: your company was joining the wave of layoffs in India and your team size has been halved.
You sat in awkward silence. They are the friends you made at work, and though you didn’t know what to say or feel, your cauldron of emotions included fear, blame, self-loathing and insecurity.
“When your colleagues get laid off, and you retain your comfortable job, it creates a sense of guilt and manifests as a lot of other emotions, including anxiety, fear of your own future and growing self-doubt,” says psychiatrist Dr Natasha Kate, Masina Hospital and Nanavati Super Specialty Hospital, Mumbai.
She helps you identify the emotions you’re dealing with and create a plan to protect your mental health and productivity.
Layoffs in India: a rollercoaster ride of emotions
When you work in close-knit teams, you forge stronger relationships. Given that you spend more waking hours with your desk partner than your own spouse or kids, they often become your family away from home.
With one of you getting laid off, the other experiences a sense of self-blame.
Employees begin attacking themselves for the loss of their colleagues’ jobs. They will look back at a project they may have worked together on, and start questioning themselves – “Why did this happen?”, “Did I let my teammate down?”, “Could I have stopped this from happening?”
This hindsight bias makes them feel that they had the power to change this outcome, causing a lot of anxiety.
Even if you survive the epidemic of layoffs in India, your self-esteem may not. Cue impostor syndrome, which plagues you with doubt, indecision and feelings of incompetence.
“People who may be falling prey to impostor syndrome, must in all accounts, refrain from magnifying their weaknesses and minimising their strengths,” says Kate.
Uncertainty makes the work environment threatening. People within the company tend to become paranoid and competitive in a way where they aren’t working together anymore. And though companies are laying off parts of the workforce, they aren’t necessarily replacing them.
The pressure might become overwhelming, and burnout looms its ugly head.
Express yourself diplomatically to your reporting manager, whose responsibility it is to keep pressure and demands in check, while being a sounding board for worried employees.
While you’re grateful that you’ve retained your job, the fear that you’ll receive a similar call from the HR can creep in. And the spiralling begins.
“I went from being shocked to being scared really quickly. I hadn’t seen layoffs this close. It was also extremely sad to be losing talented people who I had spent so much time with,” says Megha Mathur, a marketing professional.
You start comparing yourself with the ones who have been fired, and when you see all the characteristics in them are at par with yours, you equate yourself with them and draw conclusions that you’ll meet the same fate.
“Alternatively, when there are superiors who have been working for more years than you, and they get fired, it makes the younger employees question their own abilities and their future in the company. That uncertainty causes a lot of anxiety,” says Kate.
An effective way to deal with this is to acknowledge that the situation is real, but it may not always lead to the worst case scenario for you — remind yourself of your strengths, and weaknesses, and take up courses to update and fix the latter. Meditating and counselling always help when stress becomes overwhelming.
Best practices to cope with survivor’s guilt and support your colleagues
Acknowledge the situation
Nobody wants to address the angry porcupine in the room, especially when there are livelihoods at risk, but it’s time to put their needs before your own discomfort.
They are going through the worst and just letting them know that you’re there for them in any way you can be means a lot; you don’t have to be the most eloquent consoler.
Some colleagues may need a grieving period to deal with their feelings, so check in with them periodically without being overbearing or intrusive.
Help them grow
Try to formulate practical ways in which you can help. Put out a word on LinkedIn, help them network and get in touch with employers you know are currently hiring.
“In fact, this is something every employee should do for themselves also, regardless of their current employment status. Constantly upskill yourself and learn new skills to make yourself a better asset in the company,” Kate adds.
Go the extra mile if you can
Presently, a lot of companies are firing staff across the board, which includes admin staff like cleaners and canteen personnel. While they may not be in a position to reskill or upskill or land a new job easily, existing employees can team up to help them financially. “We have decided to contribute a small sum every month to help them until the situation starts looking better,” says Jenny Gonsalves*, an executive at a leading PR firm.
It’s important to reach out and check in on your employees or colleagues who’ve fallen victim to the layoffs in India. Siddharth Piramal*, a multimedia journalist, who lost his job at a leading sports channel last year, is grateful to his former colleagues. “There was nothing they could do and we all knew it. They took us out for dinner and drinks to unwind, and helped us with leads — that’s how I landed my next job. These small gestures matter.”
A reason to introspect
While you may be feeling burdened with additional responsibilities, guilt of retaining your job and fear of the unknown, it’s crucial that you identify your own strengths.
“Sometimes, counselling can help. It could be as simple as having a one-on-one chat with your reporting manager. Share your fears and ask for feedback,” says Dr Kate.
Piramal believes that he has been selfish in his approach, but reminds himself that when faced with mass layoffs in India, it’s important to look out for yourself.
“I got married in February. In April, when the company started laying off people, I was panicking. My wife wasn’t working anywhere at that moment. Immediately, I had a chat with my manager to know if my job would be secure. When I got a green signal, I was relieved. I may have acted selfishly, but I couldn’t function any other way. I inquired about the people who were let go. Most of them weren’t financially supporting their families, they are young and living with parents. That kind of made the pain a little less, but we are putting in words for them wherever we can.”
*Names changed to protect privacy