When You Escape Fire, but Land on the Frying Pan
Symptoms include guilt, anxiety and constant fear of being the next in the firing line
Mumbai | New Delhi: What’s the next worst thing to suddenly losing your job without an alternative in hand? A growing number of Indians are finding this out the hard way, even as they may have survived layoffs of late across sectors such as ecommerce, telecom, financial services, infrastructure and IT. An executive with a lifestyle goods company, for instance, complained of a recurring dream, ever since three of his colleagues were fired, that the ceiling was caving in on him. In another case, an executive nearing the end of her maternity leave couldn’t bear to return to work since two of her closest colleagues had been asked to quit while she was away.
Such people suffer from what psychologists term ‘layoff survivors’ syndrome’ and live in constant dread that their heads will be the next on the chopping block while grappling with a sapping mix of guilt, anxiety and low morale.
“A lot of young people, especially in their 20s, in India are going into depression as companies are downsizing their staff… They’re not able to focus,” said Dr Seema Hingorrany, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist and trauma researcher. “Such cases are much higher since demonetisation… Since November last year, 35-40% more people have reached out to me.” Marico chairman Harsh Mariwala, who helps promote a counselling helpline run by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, however, said this phenomenon is reflective of India catching up with the more developed world in terms of corporate practices. “It’s a VUCA (acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world, and this is a part and parcel of that journey. It’s happening more in new-age jobs.” Defending the spate of downsizing, Jairo Fernandez, senior V-P, HR, SAP Asia-Pacific and Japan, said, “There’s a need to once in a while make decisions on individuals. If the HR person doesn’t take one decision today, it may lead to a decision on 10 individuals tomorrow.”
Be that as it may, in some cases the layoff survivors’ syndrome affects the entire family as those affected vent their anxiety by lashing out at home, as in the case of an executive with a Gurgaon startup that was planning to shift base to Pune after sacking a bunch of his colleagues.
The executive’s wife took him for counselling after their 10-year-old son reported violent outbursts in school, something that the teacher told the parents was a manifestation of the father’s physically abusive behaviour towards both his son and his wife.
Sociologist GK Karanth attributed the phenomenon to the sheer pace of change, saying the biggest challenge today is that the process of innovation and invention is happening so rapidly that workers do not know where to belong and what skill to possess. “Workers are constantly readjusting their capability and their psyche. They have no idea what is coming next,” he said.
For those suffering from the malady, though, there is help at hand.
Delhi-based psychologist Geetanjali Kumar prescribed medication for sleep and blood pressure to the executive with the lifestyle goods company cited earlier to cope with the stress of having his friends laid off. “Yes, there is a reason to fear the fear but I tell him, if he keeps fearing it, then how will he survive? He needs to greet and cheat the fear,” she said.
While layoff survivors with families to support, loans to repay and no solid backup plan are more likely to fall victim, psychologists said the only way to cope eventually is to accept reality and try to move on to the best of one’s ability. After all, in these times of increasing automation and transformative changes across sectors, uncertainty for workers is here to stay.
Sreeradha D Basu & Varuni Khosla ANIRBAN BORA