How Clinicians Can Help With the Psychological Toll of Layoffs

by Monica Parpal Stockbridge
December 1, 2022 at 4:10 PM UTC

Layoffs are hard on employees, survivors and managers.

Clinical Relevance: Anyone involved in a layoff, be it the manager, a coworker, or the person being laid off, may benefit from emotional counseling

  • Layoffs loom large this year, particularly in the tech industry which has seen more than 85,000 job cuts.
  • People who have been laid off may take it personally but clinicians can help them focus on what lies ahead, including the job search.
  • Layoffs can take an psychological toll on those who survive the cuts too. They may feel guilty and also worry about what the future holds.
  • Even the managers who deliver the bad news may benefit from seeking support.

If you feel like you’re reading a lot about layoffs lately, you’re right. In the tech sector alone, over 85,000 tech employees have been given the pink slip so far this year. 

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, recently slashed nearly 11,000 employees 13 percent of its workforce. Amazon is in the processing of cutting 10,000 employees before the end of the holiday season. H&M, Carvana, Disney, HP and dozens of other big, multinational companies have also recently announced plans for major reductions to headcount. 

Numbers like these are brutal, especially when you consider that every layoff statistic represents a real person with real bills to pay, and a real cocktail of emotions including depression, anxiety and PTSD. Even the employees who manage to hold onto their positions, and the managers in charge of the layoffs, can suffer negative psychological consequences as they return to a distinctly different work environment. 

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It’s a lot to process. That’s why you may find more patients showing up to your door, asking for help with working through job- and jobless-related stress.

Helping Those Who Have Been Laid Off

First, since health insurance is often tied to employment, know that a layoff can sometimes limit or interrupt a patient’s access to healthcare. Helping people to get the help they need is priority number one.

Second, help your patients put things in a larger perspective so their situation doesn’t feel so personal. 

“It’s important to understand that most large scale layoffs are less about you and more about the state of the economy and the firms or non-profit where you were employed,” said Carl E. Van Horn, distinguished professor of public policy and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. “In other words, it’s not your fault.”

Clinicians should assist their patients in moving beyond their disappointment and transitioning to a job search, Van Horn advised. For someone who is particularly devastated by a layoff experience, consider steering them towards a professional support group. It can be a relief to commiserate with others going through a similar crisis. Many are hosted by non-profits or faith-based institutions so cost should not be an issue.

For the suddenly unemployed, finding a new job is likely to be a top priority. While there’s no single approach, Van Horn recommended following three essential strategies. 

“First, understand that most jobs are obtained through connections provided by family, friends, former colleagues—people in your personal network. Second, use company and job search boards on the internet to identify potential opportunities, but understand that these public postings are not the only, or even the best, methods for finding job opportunities,” he said. 

The third, and most important strategy, he said, is staying as positive as possible and trying hard not to get discouraged. It can take weeks or months to find a new position that’s a good fit. “In the meantime, don’t hesitate to take a part-time job or volunteer in your community,” he said.

Helping Job Cut Survivors

Those who are left behind after a round of layoffs may be consumed with guilt and an overwhelming concern that they’ll be next on the chopping block. 

“Worrying about the potential job loss is natural, but it is also beyond your control,” Van Horn said.

Van Horn stressed that this is a normal reaction. And there are ways to assuage these feelings, at least to some extent. Start by helping the patient identify what they can and cannot change and work towards any meaningful actions they can actually take. For example, people who are still employed often feel better helping their laid off coworkers find work elsewhere.

“It is important to support your former colleagues and refer them to opportunities where they might be able to find their next job. Being helpful will make you feel better and you may need their help if you lose your job in the future,” he said.

Helping Layoff Managers

What makes this latest round of job cuts especially painful is that many have textbook examples of what not to do. Some companies have given little, if any, notice of impending cuts. Others announced layoffs on social media in the middle of the night, right before disabling access badges. And one particularly tone-deaf CEO sprung a mass firing via a company wide Zoom call

These inhumane examples aside, most managers are decent human beings. Sharing the news of layoffs is not something they take lightly. It’s a transaction that can be mentally tough on them as well. 

As a clinician, you can advise them to find ways to soften the blow for both parties and to proceed with empathy and compassion. As Van Horn recommends, hold in-person meetings whenever possible, be transparent with the facts, and make exit requirements reasonable. Any information shared with the parting employee and the company at large should be authoritative, responsive to feedback, and inclusive of all individuals and groups involved. 

The University of Washington also shares tips for employers on how to handle layoffs

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