Who’s Feeling Survivor Guilt? Who Isn’t? And What Can You Do About It?

Article main image
Jul 31, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

When people survive a traumatic event, while others do not, they often feel survivor guilt, or survivor syndrome. It’s a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), occurring when individuals believe — possibly at a subconscious level — that they did not deserve to survive when others perished. Moreover, they may blame themselves for not doing enough to prevent the tragedy.

This phenomenon happens often in the workplace after downsizing. Those who survive layoffs may feel guilty for remaining with the organization while colleagues and friends have lost their jobs. 

In the midst of the pandemic, layoffs and furloughs have become commonplace. While this is unfortunate on many levels, the repercussions go beyond the immediate effects on those who have lost their jobs. Companies must also manage effects of survivor guilt, which includes negative impacts on performance

Given that many aspects of how we work, communicate, and process the world around us are influenced by personality type, my team and I conducted research into how personality type influences how people experience survivor guilt. We discovered fascinating insights. 

Most Workers Don’t Feel Guilty, But…

The majority of employees do not feel guilty for retaining their jobs while co-workers have lost theirs. Still, a substantial minority, about 25%, do report feeling some level of guilt. That number is high enough to impact performance significantly. The question becomes: Who is most likely to experience these feelings? 

Our data showed a clear difference in survivor guilt when we looked at personality as assessed by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) framework. MBTI measures preferences for how we tend to think and behave across four dimensions, one of which is “Thinking/Feeling.” People with a Thinking preference prefer to base decisions on objective logic, whereas those with a Feeling preference tend to base decisions on values and the effect of those decisions on others. 

Respondents with a Feeling preference were significantly more likely to experience survivor guilt than those with a Thinking preference — 41% of those with a Feeling preference agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I feel guilty about having a job while others have been laid off or furloughed,” compared to only 19% of those with a Thinking preference.

Managers and executives are much more likely to have a Thinking than a Feeling preference, Consequently,  they may be less prone to survivor guilt. This may allow them to cope more easily with tough decisions, but it also means that they may not readily recognize or relate to the emotions of their team members.

The Importance of a Self-Awareness

The levels of guilt that people with a Feeling preference may experience are likely to increase as economic conditions forced by COVID-19 continue to result in furloughing and downsizing. If and when things return to normal — whatever that means — it is unlikely that these accumulated feelings of guilt will simply vanish. Companies may be dealing with these issues long after the lockdown.

Because managers and executives may not inherently be equipped to manage the impact of survivor guilt, it’s all the more important to increase their self-awareness and understanding of other people. The more aware leaders are of their own tendencies, the better they are able to adapt to situations and act in the best ways possible. 

For example, while it might be tempting to congratulate an employee for retaining their job — even if it is directly due to outstanding performance — doing so is probably not a good idea. More likely, a staff member  with a Feeling preference will want to know that a colleague who has been laid off or furloughed has been treated well. Individuals with a Feeling preference also may benefit from reassurance that there was nothing they could have done to prevent the departure of a co-worker.  

When leaders truly understand the basis by which they make decisions, and the emotional punch of those decisions, they can start to lead in ways that meet the needs of their colleagues. In turn, this will increase their ability to help their employees successfully navigate the aftermath of pandemic-related downsizing.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.