Survivor Syndrome and federal government layoffs: mental health at work
Following years of staff cuts in the Federal Public Service, the federal budget tabled in March 2012 put the official stamp on another wave of major cuts to the public sector workforce. The government claims the $5.2 billion in spending cuts will mean the loss of 19,200 public service jobs. That could all add up to 35,200 less people working over the next three years.
Under these circumstances, the “victims” – and here we are referring to public servants declared surplus – are usually on the receiving end of support measures such as those called for in the workforce adjustment policy and possible help with a search for a new job.
While all of this is going on, virtually nothing is done for public servants remaining in the organization. An insidious phenomenon then takes root in the organization – employees are overworked, work excessive amounts of overtime, are absent more often and end up unmotivated, morose and even depressed. Those left behind are often forgotten and considered lucky and privileged to still have their jobs. But those people are really suffering from what is known as the “survivor syndrome”.
The “Survivor Syndrome”
The “survivor syndrome” is not a mental illness that has been written up in the compendium of mental disorders, but it has received significant attention in specialized occupational psychology literature. It affects the mental health of employees and can lead to very significant health problems.
Some people associate the term “survivor syndrome” with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in spite of the fact the difference in intensity between the two is quite substantial. Nonetheless, even though survivor syndrome is less intense, those remaining behind following huge staff reductions experience similar emotions.
Racked by fear of losing their jobs, the “survivors” work harder to prove they are competent. However, the fatigue and stress that come over them sometimes lead them to make more errors, which reduce productivity. Others become unmotivated and abandon all expectations of the organization.
Excessive stress can cause physical problems ranging from occupational accidents, to back pain, to burnout. Psychological problems – anxiety, insomnia, drug abuse, psychological distress and depression – also surface.
The “survivor syndrome” is brought on by very high stress levels. Although most manage to make their way through difficult times and get back on their feet, some remain marked and will fall victim to more serious physical and psychological disorders.
Reliable scientific data on the cause and evolution of emotions experienced by the survivors of layoffs is in short supply. What we do know is that the phenomenon does vary from one person to the next due to several factors – age, profession, physical and mental health, to name a few. It is not correlated, however, with one’s job or position in the hierarchy. Everyone is susceptible, even managers.
Of importance is the fact that more than half of public sector workers are women, representing 84 per cent of administrative staff in federal workplaces. This means that jobs cuts in the federal public sector will disproportionately impact women.
The following are common symptoms associated with “survivor syndrome”:
- Feeling of injustice, distrust and often anger toward the organization;
- Depression, stress and fatigue;
- Demotivation and dissatisfaction at work;
- Diminished creativity, innovation and performance;
- Feeling that the change is permanent and that nothing is stable;
- Insecurity, anxiety and fear;
- Resignation and sluggishness;
- Communication problems between managers and employees;
- Loyalty to self and to one’s work, not to the organization and its managers;
- Guilt over having kept one’s job;
- Observation that optimism is not an attitude that squares with the organization’s overriding values;
- Competitive and very divisive work atmosphere;
- Resistance to all organizational changes;
- Intention to leave one’s employment
In some cases, the symptoms of the survivor syndrome will not disappear on their own. They may persist, evolve and even intensify over time.
The Role of Health and Safety Committees in Preventing the Syndrome
The appearance of the survivor syndrome is often cited as an indicator of the extent to which managers have overlooked the human factor.
Prevention measures can work, if they have been incorporated into the initial management planning process. They can lessen the harmful effect of the survivor syndrome. The health and safety committee then becomes an indispensable focal point where important issues can be discussed.
Part II of the Canada Labour Code allows members of health and safety committees to discuss these important issues. Section 125 (1) (z.05) stipulates that the employer must “consult the policy committee or, if there is no policy committee, the work place committee or the health and safety representative to plan the implementation of changes that might affect occupational health and safety.”
More specifically, section 134.1 (4) states that a policy committee “shall participate in the planning of the implementation and in the implementation of changes that might affect occupational health and safety, including work processes and procedures.” Needless to say, this workforce adjustment process will have an impact on occupational health and safety at several levels.
Many will experience a feeling of powerlessness regarding their working environment. The importance of offering survivors a participative process aimed at improving the health of workers in the organization becomes essential.
Surviving managers must see to developing a common vision and preparing a culture of change. It is therefore essential that the needs of workers be understood and taken into account.
Projects aimed at improving the health of the organization must be brought in and steps taken to improve the survivors’ living conditions so that they once again become vibrant.
Managers who overlook the survivors’ psychological aspects by blithely reminding workers that they are fortunate to still be employed are merely making matters worse.
Although the negative reactions felt by many employees following a massive layoff will not be permanent, overwork will be an issue over the long term. Managers must come up with viable solutions to minimize the impact on workers.
The challenge facing managers will be making an effort to convince workers that they do have a future in the organization. This objective will only be achieved by having workers take part in problem identification and decision making.
Mental health problems at work are the main causes of increased absenteeism. They also drive up the numbers of worker’s compensation claims submitted by workers and long-term disability applications.
Chronic Stress as an Occupational Injury
Mental health can be compromised by chronic stress, i.e., a series of events, even trivial, whose cumulative effect undermines health. The series of events must be unpredictable, not each event taken in isolation.
In general, it must be shown that the stressors in isolation or cumulatively exceed the stress that is considered “normal”, which workers are exposed to in a “modern” workplace.
Professor Katherine Lippel discussed this fact during our National Health and Safety Conference in 2009. She highlighted a study published in 2000 by Laflamme and HRDSC – Labour Directorate, which analyzed the impact arising from cuts of 40,000 jobs in the federal public sector in 1995.
The study showed that many workers who did keep their jobs became ill due to the increased responsibilities, the heavier workload and quicker pace, the intensification of work and an increase in conflicts between colleagues and members of the public dissatisfied with their services.
For workers under federal jurisdiction, the Government Employees Compensation Act (GECA) determines, with few exceptions, that the eligibility of a claim will be evaluated by the province or territory the person usually works, based on the legislation in force in that jurisdiction. Note that acceptance and compensation criteria do vary from one jurisdiction to the next.
Most of the legislation governing workers’ compensation boards does call for a two- or three-level appeal structure, including an administrative tribunal, whose role in each of the provinces and each of the territories is to review exclusively the rulings of the board that issued a decision pertaining to the eligibility and compensation of a claim.
In principle, compensation for psychological injuries related to chronic stress exists in five provinces/territories:
- Northwest Territories-Nunavut
The legislation and policies interpreting claims dealing with psychological injuries relating to chronic stress vary greatly, depending on the provincial and territorial compensation offices.
The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada provides excellent comparative tables illustrating the legislation and policies of stress-related compensation and what constitutes occupational accidents or professional diseases in all jurisdictions in Canada.
PSAC members may seek additional advice and information on their worker’s compensation regime in their province or territory from our PSAC regional offices.
The growth rate of claims due to psychological disorders has been high since 1990. In the Federal Public Service, half of long-term disability insurance applications submitted in 2010 were attributable to mental health problems.
Again, we must remember that even though more than half of public sector workers are women, they represent more than 70% of all long-term disability insurance applications.
Cutbacks, budget cuts, closures, new management methods, new service delivery models are becoming increasingly widespread. In view of this, it is important to reflect on how working conditions, the work organization and some psychosocial problems experienced by public servants are interrelated.
Depression, anxiety and chronic stress problems have already reached epidemic proportions. We are aware that the situation will get worse with the massive job reductions that will occur in the federal government.
The Alliance has produced helpful guides to assist our members based on frequently asked questions and on the key areas where members have experienced difficulties in getting benefits.
The federal government, with its austerity agenda will jeopardizes the health and safety of our members. They will eliminate critical public services, put tens of thousands out of work and put the environment and our food safety at risk.
Our health and safety activists will face many challenges in representing the vital interest of “survivors”. We must mobilize to better resist these governmental neo-liberal policies designed to attack public services and, more specifically, federal public services workers. It’s a matter of health and “survival”…
Date Modified : 2012/09/21