Taking survivor symptoms seriously

Roughly 30 000 oil-related jobs have disappeared in Norway over the past couple of years. Getting fired is never fun, but many of those who remain are also struggling.

| Bente Bergøy

Philosopher Øyvind Kvalnes

People who subsume much of their identity in their work often suffer most in a downsizing process,
says philosopher Øyvind Kvalnes.
(Photo: Sverre Christian Jarild).


Research worldwide shows that many of these ‘survivors’ feel a sense of guilt and a bad conscience at having retained their jobs,” explains philosopher Øyvind Kvalnes.

An associate professor in the department of leadership and organisational behaviour at the BI Norwegian Business School, he adds that their motivation may be significantly reduced, affecting job satisfaction and productivity.

This phenomenon, known as “survivor syndrome”, is often associated with traumatic incidents such as shipwrecks, natural disasters, epidemics or war.

Those who emerge from such events frequently blame themselves for pulling through, and can suffer such symptoms as anxiety, depression and insomnia.

“Exactly the same thing can happen with workplace downsizing, and employers need to take this seriously,” says Kvalnes.



He is interested in the subject of change and what it does to people, and has given talks to organisations and union officials on the survivor syndrome.

The problem can be averted or alleviated by putting good processes in place, he emphasises. “Managers must set a positive example.

“Openness, good communication and involvement are crucial. Decisions on who stays and who goes, for example, must be based on clear criteria and principles.”

The approach taken must be transparent and fair, the organisation must comprehend the reasons for the downsizing, and it must grasp why these are having such an effect.

And the employer could benefit greatly from taking particular care of those who will be staying – by motivating them, for example, or by facilitating professional development.

“Those made redundant usually get a lot of attention and good follow-up with advice and perhaps severance packages,” Kvalnes observes. “The others must usually fend for themselves.”

Not only that, but the survivors must also often tackle new jobs and different work routines. Change management specialists know full well that such alterations are not necessarily welcome.

That is particularly the case when those affected do not necessarily know where these innovations could lead. You know what you have, but not what you are getting.

To cap it all, good colleagues have disappeared – something which can trigger feelings of loss and sorrow in itself.



People who subsume much of their identity in their work usually suffer the most, Kvalnes says. Those who have more social resources will be best equipped to tackle change.

“We’re social beings who need companionship,” he points out. “That’s completely fundamental. We need to be rooted, to be seen and to be mirrored in others.”

That also applies to people in the driving seat, who take the decisions and lay the plans – and who conduct the difficult conversations.

Downsizing processes are naturally very demanding for them as well. Union officials and managers also need to be rooted in the community.

The importance of the social collective is well documented, Kvalnes observes. That applies not least to research on the human brain.

“When a community, like a workplace, is broken up and you or others are excluded from it, the brain reacts in the same way as if you’ve lost a limb.”

Underlining the way humans are social beings, he says this phenomenon is rooted in their evolutionary past. Break-ups are hard, as is shown by the feelings unleashed and the terms used.

“Those who’ve survived a downsizing often use strong words to describe what has happened, such as life, death, executioner, pain and sorrow. It’s clearly dramatic.”

Famed Greek philosopher Socrates proclaimed that one should “know thyself”. But Kvalnes believes many have misinterpreted this maxim.

“It’s not a matter of sitting in a cabin by yourself and knowing who you are in isolation. This is about who you are in the community.”


"Those made redundant usually get a lot of attention and good follow-up with advice and perhaps severance packages. The others must usually fend for themselves."