The Trauma in Transitions – Layoffs, Downsizing & Terminations

Nov 10, 2022

In the past few days, we’ve all seen the headlines about Twitter and Meta doing significant workforce reductions (layoffs, downsizing). Harvard Business Review released an article this week titled, “Are you Being Quiet Fired?” where they share an issue with workplaces intentionally creating a hostile work environment that encourages people to leave voluntarily. If this is what the biggest and most successful businesses are talking about, then likely it is coming up for small businesses as well. All these signs point towards an issue that many may not recognize that accompanies these situations…the trauma they cause.

Yes, I am using the word ‘trauma’ and I don’t use it lightly. There are many definitions and opinions on those definitions. Here are a few definitions of trauma:

  • “An emotional response to a terrible event”
  • “The lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event”
  • “An emotional upset”
  • “An event or circumstance resulting in physical harm; emotional harm; and/or life-threatening harm”

Let’s consider these definitions as they relate to involuntary job transitions (meaning the employee did not choose to leave their workplace of their own free will). When a person is being forced out of their place of employment, they are being stripped of many core components of their lives:

  • The relationships and friendships they’ve built in their workplace.
  • The financial support they receive for their families.
  • The routines and habits they’ve built up over their career.
  • The benefits they get such as health insurance.
  • Possibly even where they derive their core sense of purpose.

Furthermore, these events are often sudden, unanticipated, and create a tidal wave of emotion for all those involved. Given this backdrop, I think trauma is a more than appropriate term to be using when we talk about going through these hardships.

Until my own workplace transition, I did not fully appreciate the painful experience leaving your workplace can be in your life. I didn’t realize the relationships that would end, the friendships that would wane, the hurt that you would feel as a major part of your life was totally gone. Although I was aware of the challenges through my experience in HR and offering support benefits to help people through the transition, I did not appreciate firsthand how it would feel. I did not know just how traumatic these life changes could really be for the people experiencing them. I did not recognize how much hurt occurs when one goes through a transition they were not anticipating. I did not understand how difficult this is, especially when it happens at the end of the year in the holiday months.

Many people are impacted by these situations, and not just the employees who are involuntarily terminated. Those who are forced to make the decisions about who will be terminated and those who must execute those decisions either preparing paperwork, communications, or having the conversations themselves. In my experience, this burden often lies with the business leaders and the Human Resources or Talent Management teams.

I have far more experience in this space than I would like to have had in my career. I’ve been through five involuntary layoffs (downsizing) and countless terminations. As both a Vice President, Talent Management Leader, and General Counsel with my last organization, I was responsible for ensuring every decision was made legally and fairly. Then, I was responsible for preparing everything – the communications, documentation, and planning. Finally, I was often involved in the terminations themselves.

The process of deciding who will be terminated is grueling for those who are involved in the selection process. You must do a workforce analysis and determine who will make the list and who won’t. The discussions and decisions are incredibly difficult. Maybe in larger organizations, I imagine it might be easier to simply choose names off a list of names of people you don’t know. However, in my small organization, each layoff and termination were painstaking and often put me into a pretty severe state of stress, anxiety, and even depression.

Never once in my many years in corporate going through these situations did I appreciate the traumatic experience they were for me. Never once did I realize what it was doing to me, my team, and my fellow leaders. Sure, I knew it wasn’t fun, I felt sad and stressed, but I didn’t realize the level of trauma this was creating for me as I was just trying to ignore it and move on.

I wish I knew then what I know now about trauma and how if we don’t deal with it effectively, our body holds onto it. I held onto years of workplace stress and trauma in my body simply because I lacked the knowledge or skills on what to do instead. I’d often just “have a drink” or “numb with Netflix” rather than face and feel the emotions that were being triggered.

To all those that are facing a job transition – be it a layoff, workforce reduction, or termination…you are experiencing trauma.

To all the human resources and talent management professionals out there that are having to deal with these situations whether they are layoffs, terminations, or quiet are experiencing trauma.

To all the leaders who are having to make these difficult decisions and struggling with their emotions about who will stay and who will be terminated…you are experiencing trauma.

Ok…so what do I do?

The first step towards healing from these traumas is recognizing and acknowledging them as such and being willing to see them for what they truly are – a major life event. Just the acknowledgement starts the process of allowing ourselves to deal with the event more effectively rather than try to drink away or ignore our emotional reactions to the situation.

The second step towards healing is to allow yourself to express and feel your emotions about this major life event. Expression comes in a lot of different forms – maybe you need a trusted professional to speak to, maybe just a spouse or a friend, maybe prayer or talking it out alone in the car, writing can be an extremely useful and effective method, or maybe you just need time to process in your own way (through art, dance, exercise) away from everyone. Whatever it is – you must find an avenue to express your emotions. Then, you must allow yourself to feel them. To feel the anger, the bitterness, the judgement, the sadness, the hurt, and anything else that might come up.

Just these two steps alone will allow you to start moving the trauma out of your body.

The third step then is to repeat steps one and two as the emotions and challenges continue to come up. It’s not a one and done process but rather a way of processing that allows us to heal from the trauma overtime.

For the issues that continue to come up as time passes, this is where we need the fourth step to address the triggered traumas. What is a triggered trauma? Sometimes when we go through one trauma, it triggers or reminds us of the feeling we experienced in a prior trauma in our life. The emotion that keeps coming up is due to the original trauma not just the current one. As a result, we must go back and discover the original trauma that is being triggered so we can recognize and acknowledge the experience and then express and feel our emotions related to it.

The fifth and final step is optional and for those who are continuing to struggle with the original or triggered traumas. The firth step is to seek out an empathetic, compassionate, helping professional (coach, therapist, counselor, etc.) When our trauma(s) cannot be resolved on our own, we need someone to witness, empathize with and support us in our process.

I was extremely blessed in my own workplace transition experience to already be supported by a coach and a therapist at the time. Combined, they helped me work through the original and many triggered traumas that followed.

For all those who are facing this type of trauma right now, you have my deepest and most sincere empathy and compassion. What you are going through right now is real, it’s hard, it’s overwhelming and exhausting. You do not have to “just get over it.” Instead, you must “learn to move through it.” I have absolute confidence you can and will be able to do so.

If you are finding yourself in one of these situations, where you are experiencing the trauma of transition, I want to extend an offer to reach out to me. We are here to support individuals like you with your transitions and whether you work with me or one of my talented team members, we can help you work through your transition and the trauma you are experiencing. Just send me a message on LinkedIn, DM me on Instagram, or email me at [email protected]!

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