Why leaders must act now to combat stress and survivor guilt

With the pandemic placing a huge strain on employees, survivor guilt is real. Here is how to confront its consequences

Difficulties with managing and addressing survivor guilt and stress are particularly heightened at the moment, and as much of the population continues to work from home.

A lack of face-to-face contact makes it more difficult for employees to raise concerns about both their own stress levels and those of their colleagues. This stress is amplified by an ever-changing national furlough scheme and either uncertainty or guilt surrounding job security.

Combatting stress needs be a top priority for HR leaders, as research from The Myers-Briggs Company shows that 25% of European employees risk health problems due to stress at work, whilst 70% find their work stressful. However, this cannot be solved with a one-size-fits-all response, as every employee has different triggers and reactions to stress.

It is, therefore, crucial for leaders to take personality into account when combatting stress in the workplace. Here, John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, shares with DiversityQ his tips on managing employees’ survivor guilt in the workplace.

Can you have survivor guilt when it is a global pandemic?

Yes, very much so. When others have suffered, when they have lost their job, or been ill, or worse, but you have survived, many people will experience survivor guilt. In a work context, they will feel guilty that they still have a job when others have lost theirs. Our data suggest that around a third of people feel guilty about still having a job when others have lost theirs.

What other impact is the pandemic having on our mental health?

Any disease epidemic can be frightening and affect our mental health, but the COVID-19 pandemic has been so all-consuming that it will have a much greater effect. The debilitating effects of the disease can have a very direct effect on our mental health, as can anxieties about the health of our friends and family and about what the future might hold.

In research that my team at The Myers-Briggs Company has been carrying out, we found that 74% of respondents said they were worried about their friends and family, 57% were worried about their co-workers, and 48% were worried about the future of their organisation. 53% said that they were more anxious than before.

How does that apply to the workplace?

For many people, one big change brought about by the pandemic was a sudden switch to working from home. Many people welcomed this change – in our research, over 80% of remote workers said that they enjoyed working from home – but 40% of our sample worried that they were becoming too isolated.

An individual’s personality preferences also made a great deal of difference here. Using the MBTI personality framework, we found that people with preferences for Extraversion and for Feeling were significantly less positive about working from home than were those with preferences for Extraversion or for Thinking.

People with a Thinking preference prefer to make decisions based on objective logic, whereas those with a Feeling preference prefer to make decisions based on values and on how those decisions will affect people.

We also found that respondents with a Feeling personality preference were significantly more likely to experience guilt than those with a Thinking preference. Forty-four per cent of those with a Feeling preference agreed or strongly agreed that they felt guilty about still having a job, but only 21% of those with a Thinking preference.

Why do employees that survive downsizing rarely perform as well as before?

One reason is survivor guilt. In our research, we found that those experiencing survivor guilt were also more likely to agree that they were worried about their co-workers and more anxious in general and that they were finding it more difficult concentrate and to remain focused – issues that could affect performance.

It may also be that employees think that their ‘psychological contract’ with the organisation has been broken. Everyone has a regular contract, dealing with their salary and working conditions. Still, there is also a psychological contract, the intangible agreement on values and ‘the way we do things around here’ that is held implicitly between an employee and their employer.

If organisations seem to be violating this contract and do not explain to staff why they have to do this, employees will be less engaged and begin to look elsewhere. Indeed, individuals with a Feeling preference might walk away from their jobs and the organisation without explanation or warning if they think their values have been compromised.

What can employers expect from their employees returning to work? How can they support their wellbeing?

Organisations can expect a degree of survivor guilt from returning staff. To help their employees with this, they should let those still in the organisation know that the people who were laid off were treated as well and as much like a human being as possible; Feeling employees will very much appreciate knowing this. And it is important not to say this has been done if it was not the case.  

People with a Feeling preference have a knack for smelling out inauthenticity. Also, they should reassure people (but only if this is really the case) that even if they had been prepared to make sacrifices themselves, this would not have changed the outcome.

One thing to avoid is to congratulate people on still having a job; this may just add to any guilty feelings. It’s also important to note that managers are far more likely to have a Thinking than a Feeling personality preference and may therefore be less prone to survivor guilt themselves, and not appreciate the effect that this can have on people.


John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, answers some pertinent questions.

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