Bruised in the battle to survive

8th September 1995 at 01:00
Funding squeezes are prompting more rounds of job cuts. But what about the staff who remain after redundancies? Anat Arkin reports.

Low morale can undermine the performance of staff who survive job cuts, warns a report from the Institute of Employment Studies (IES). "Employers who assume survivors are happy to have a job and ready to throw themselves into new roles are likely in the short term to be disappointed by the response," it says.

Far from feeling happy, staff who keep their jobs after a round of redundancies are often afraid that they will be the next to go. This can make them suspicious of management, hostile to change and averse to taking risks. The knowledge that they are disposable is also likely to sap their loyalty and commitment to their organisation.

These symptoms of "survivor syndrome" are often accentuated in small, close-knit communities such as schools, according to Stephen Bevan, associate director of the IES.

Pointing to the high degree of professional interdependence among staff in schools, he says: "Redundancies can have quite an effect on staff perceptions of their future job security and a huge impact on their relationship with the governing body, who for the most part are working within budgetary constraints and really do not have much choice about making people redundant.

"All it needs is for one post to be made redundant and the impact internally is quite significant. So there is work to be done by governors and senior teams in schools to make sure they are fully aware of the consequences of any redundancies for their staff, including non-teaching staff."

While job cuts through early retirement or natural wastage may not be as painful as compulsory redundancies, any reduction in numbers has an impact on the survivors' perceived and actual workload.

"It puts a strain on teamworking and on the amount of non-contact time that teachers have," says Mr Bevan, who is a school governor.

"It means that extra-curricular activities are spread around fewer people and that there is less time for planning, monitoring and evaluation. It does place a lot of pressure on the people who stay and, ironically, some people resign as a result of these pressures."

The IES report argues that employers can avoid some of the negative consequences of redundancy if they anticipate the factors most likely to hit morale. These "risk factors" include failure to convince staff that cuts are necessary, apparent lack of fairness in deciding who goes and who stays, and an unwillingness or inability to help people adjust to the changes. Staff are also likely to view an uncaring attitude towards those who have lost their jobs as a sign of the low value the organisation places on its people.

Despite the difficulty of influencing morale, the nine organisations taking part in the study agreed that it is vital to communicate with staff during a redundancy exercise. Employees need to understand the reasons why job cuts are made and how these will be managed.

But, the report adds, they are likely to attach more importance to the general tone of communication than its precise content. "During change, people tend to have heightened awareness of what in real terms that change means for them and their colleagues. They will therefore be particularly critical of 'hooray' type statements and communications that deny their perception of that reality. "

Employers can - and in some cases do - provide support, including stress counselling, for employees who remain in the organisation after a round of job cuts. But any counselling needs to be adapted to deal specifically with the loss and grief experienced by survivors of redundancy, which the report compares to the reactions that follow a bereavement.

Career counselling and increased access to training can also help retained members of staff adjust to any new job demands created by colleagues' departure. It is equally important that staff feel these demands are realistic and that they are quite clear about what is now expected of them.

Evaluating the success of these efforts to influence morale is not easy.

While figures on staff turnover and absence, together with "softer" measures such as attitude surveys, can help employers identify the causes and extent of staff dissatisfaction, in reality many managers are reluctant to hear bad news from the people they are now pinning their hopes on. They may also feel they have little control over something as nebulous as staff morale.

But employers cannot afford to ignore "survivor syndrome", according to the IES. "It is apparentIthat for many down-sized employers, the promised realisation of longer-term cost savings can be undermined by low productivity, absence, high turnover and the realisation that experience, contacts and infrastructure have also been lost."

Employee Morale During Downsizing, P Kettley. IES report 291, 1995. Available from BEBC Ltd, P O Box 1496, Parkstone, Poole, Dorset BH12 3YD. Price, Pounds 16

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