Survivor Syndrome

Downsizing is the planned elimination of jobs and positions in order to decrease the number of workers employed by an organization; it is often a response to changing technology, market demands, and institutional pressures. Downsizing occurs in a large number of organizations, and it is increasingly being accepted as a legitimate management tool even in economically healthy organizations. The effects of downsizing extend beyond employees who lose their jobs. Downsizing alters the work environment of the workers who remain in the organization, who are described in the literature as survivors. Downsizing can alter the conditions of survivors’ jobs and change their perceptions of the organization. Some studies show that after downsizing, survivors become narrow-minded, self-absorbed, and risk averse. Furthermore, morale sinks, productivity drops, and distrust—especially toward management—increases. This constellation of symptoms is termed survivor syndrome.

There are many definitions of survivor syndrome. In general, this syndrome relates to the negative effects experienced by the remaining workforce after a major organizational change. It also refers to the way survivors react when many of their friends are forced to terminate their employment in the organization. Survivor syndrome is described as a mixed bag of emotions exhibited by employees following organizational downsizing—a set of attitudes, feelings, and perceptions. These symptoms can be broken down into four clusters of feelings: (1) fear, insecurity, and uncertainty; (2) frustration, anger, and resentment; (3) sadness, depression, and guilt; and (4) injustice, betrayal, and guilt. These psychological states can affect survivors’ work behavior (e.g., motivation, performance) and attitudes (satisfaction, commitment).

Survivors experience apathy, disengagement, distrust, powerlessness, and loss of motivation, morale, and commitment. Their feelings of powerlessness and the uncertainty of their job security can cause severe stress reactions. Furthermore, the high increase in workload following the downsizing may lead to burnout and decreased performance. In situations in which downsizing is perceived as merely a cutback in personnel, commitment and loyalty to the organization among survivors decreases significantly. Survivors feel they have to cope with an additional role while getting little or nothing in return.

Researchers suggest several explanations for survivor syndrome. Some focus on increased job insecurity, perceptions of procedural and distributive injustice, and diminishing intrinsic motivation of the job. Others point to violation of the psychological contract, perceptions of unfairness on the part of the organization, and the organization’s lack of future vision. Two concepts are core to the survivor syndrome phenomenon: psychological contract and distributive and procedural justice.

The psychological contract refers to the unwritten reciprocity of the relationship between the employer and the employee. It is voluntary, subjective, and informal, and it evolves with time. The essence of the old psychological contract was that the employee gives his or her compete loyalty and trust to the organization, and the organization takes care of the employee for life. When downsizing occurs, employees feel the psychological contract has been violated by management. Thus, employees feel their psychological contract with the employer has been broken, and they blame management for breaking the contract. Blame among survivors may be a projection defense mechanism that helps them cope with their guilt over surviving the cutback.

Distributive justice refers to the perceived fairness of the way resources are distributed among people. One approach to distributive justice, equity theory, proposes that individuals strive to ensure that their own outcome/input ratios are equal to the outcome/ input ratios of others to whom they compare themselves. When downsizing occurs, survivors compare themselves to those who have been laid off and experience inequity.

Procedural justice refers to perceptions of the fairness of the procedures used to determine outcomes. In the case of downsizing, it relates to perceptions of the fairness of the procedures used to lay off employees. Studies show that when procedural justice is perceived—fairness in implementing the layoff process—it minimizes survivors’ guilt and blame.

Thus, research shows that the following are antecedents of survivor syndrome and decreased performance: downsizing through attrition, leading to skill shortage; no overall work reduction in the organization; inappropriate elements in the reward and appraisal system; and pursuing downsizing without quality improvement programs and redesign.

Several studies have focused on the outcomes of survivor syndrome. A field study investigating the impact of repeated layoffs showed that organizational commitment is negatively related to the severity of the layoff. In a survey of senior managers after downsizing, most reported that their employees had low morale, feared future cutbacks, and distrusted management. Lack of communication before and during cutbacks causes low morale, loss of trust in the organization, and increased stress. Low morale and lack of trust have a ripple effect on all dimensions of activity: Research shows that after layoffs, most survivors have diminishing future expectations, indicating low commitment.

Some researchers have found an inverted-U relationship between the job insecurity of survivors and their work efforts. Positive relationships have been found among survivors whose economic need to work is high. Laboratory experiments demonstrate that regardless of whether a layoff is accompanied by job insecurity, it elicits an increase in performance among survivors. Survivors who experience job insecurity work harder because they believe that by doing so, they can reduce the threat of layoff. Survivors who do not experience job insecurity work harder to alleviate their feelings of survivor guilt produced by positive inequity.

Findings concerning survivors’ coping demonstrate that they cope in ways that are not good for them or their organization. They are reluctant to take personal and organizational risks and demonstrate reduced innovation and productivity. They distance themselves from the layoff victims or, when they identify with them, distance themselves from the organization. Though some survivors try to reduce their feelings of guilt over their peers’ layoffs by increasing their output, others redress their feeling of inequity by convincing themselves that those who were laid off were poor performers. Thus, in some cases, the job insecurity of survivors leads to temporarily heightened productivity, but in most cases, it is accompanied by low morale.

Another defense mechanism found among survivors coping with feelings of uncertainty and threat is identification with the aggressor syndrome: Some survivors cope with their impotence by identifying with the executive, the perceived aggressor. This enhances their self-esteem by creating a kind of merger with the powerful figure, making them feel like winners and reinforcing their distance from the layoff victims. They feel equity and legitimacy in scapegoating the victims, the losers.

Longitudinal studies following survivors show that wounds do not seem to heal and symptoms intensify with time. Findings from several studies indicate that some procedures can reduce the negative reactions of survivors. These include giving clear explanations of the reasons for the downsizing and providing information about the compensation given to leavers, as well as the fairness of the organization’s decisions (procedural justice), the way management breaks the news, and the level of job insecurity. One recommendation is to treat leavers fairly to prevent survivor syndrome. Managers in downsizing organizations must realize that survivors have experienced a traumatic event that they have little or no control over; therefore, they need reassurance if they are to maintain their commitment to the organization. Managers must realize the need for human resource policies to cope with the effects of downsizing. Organizations should find ways to nurture confidence in organizational support and to make the employees believe the organization cares about their well-being. Organizational support can be fostered by redesigning jobs using job enrichment procedures and implementing employees’ empowerment strategies. Creating a future vision that survivors can identify with is also recommended.


  1. Brockner, J., Grover, S., Reed, T., & Dewitt, R. (1992). Layoffs, job insecurity, and survivors’ work effort: Evidence of an inverted-U relationship. Academy of Management Journal, 35, 413-425.
  2. Brockner, J., Wiesenfeld, B., Stephan, J., Hurley, R., Grover, S., Reed, T., DeWitt, R., & Martin, C. (1997). The effects of layoff survivors on their fellow survivors’ reactions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 10, 835-863.
  3. de Vries, K., & Balazs, K. (1997). The downside of downsizing. Human Relations, 30, 11-50.
  4. Sahdev, K. (2004). Revisiting the survivor syndrome: The role of leadership in implementing downsizing. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 13, 165-196.

See also: