Advice & News

September 9, 2020

Emotionally Managing Survivor’s Guilt

Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
It's a challenging time to work in higher education. Last April, journalist Katti Gray wrote: "In response to the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic, more than 72 percent of college presidents expect to lay off employees, almost 55 percent project across-the-board budget cuts and almost 40 percent will likely cut research-and-development spending, according to a recent survey of higher education leaders' priorities amid campus shutdowns." Throughout the spring and summer, higher education professionals have seen those cuts realized.

This fall, many institutions kick off the 2020-21 school year with leaner teams across departments. Those professionals whose roles were not impacted by cuts are probably feeling a complex sense of relief, appreciation, and concern. For many, their job responsibilities have changed.

If you're among those professionals, you may be juggling a hefty to-do list, as you have fewer colleagues with whom to share responsibilities. Planning for students' autumn return, usually a job highlight, may now feel fraught with additional intricacies. This puts you in a tough spot. You don't want to complain, but you're also saddled with extra work.

So how do you handle this new reality? Start by examining any semblance of survivor's guilt that may complicate your feelings about work. You were selected to do an important job during a difficult time. Here's how to own it.

Emotionally Process
Take a step back and recognize a couple of things about your job. First, this is not exactly what you signed on for. Things were different when you accepted this role. The country was different. The institution was different. The role was different.

This is a sad and difficult time in our country. You lost colleagues whose positions were halted or terminated. That was not their fault, and it certainly isn't yours.

You get to be sad about this. You get to mourn these losses. Doing so doesn't mean you're unappreciative or that you're not a team player. It simply means you're human. This is sad. This is difficult. You get to say that until it stops hurting.

Where you say that, though, and to whom is important. See what tools are available to help you get your mind around the losses you've experienced at work. See what campus counseling is available. Meet with a therapist outside of work or talk with your mentor.

Invite help as you process the changes you've weathered and as you generate plans to move forward emotionally and professionally.

Survivor's Guilt
Dr. Nancy Sherman describes the burden that soldiers sometimes carry from the battlefield into civilian life: "In war, standing here rather than there can save your life but cost a buddy his. It's flukish luck, but you feel responsible. The guilt begins an endless loop of counterfactuals -- thoughts that you could have or should have done otherwise, though, in fact, you did nothing wrong. The feelings are, of course, not restricted to the battlefield. But given the magnitude of loss in war, they hang heavy there and are pervasive. And they raise the question of just how irrational those feelings are, and if they aren't, of what is the basis of their reasonableness."

There's a couple of similarities, but this situation isn't exactly like that which haunts military professionals. Importantly, there's nothing flukish here. Your management team decided to keep you on board. You and the work you do has been deemed essential. You bring important skills and institutional knowledge to your work.

Continue to do so in a way that is authentic to you; don't feel like you have to be meek or apologetic for having been selected when others were not. This is your opportunity to embrace.

Dr. Patricia Celan, psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University, recommends: "Focus on how you have earned your position, rather than succumbing to self-doubt and guilt."

Working through Frustration
Another emotional piece to get your mind around: trying to manage the frustration that can come with an influx of new tasks and responsibilities. It can be exceedingly difficult to absorb new responsibilities to cover for staffing shortages, especially if there's been no increased incentive like a raise or a promotion.

Try to actively work through the frustration you may feel, so that you can think clearly and communicate from a place of strategy rather than a place of frustration. Regularly invite the help of your counselor, therapist, or mentor so that you feel like you're processing and understanding your feelings. This positions you to be purposeful in your communications rather than being reactionary.

Aim to manage frustration. Examine it. Discuss it with someone whose opinions and advice you trust-preferably an outsider who is removed from the situation. Aim to work through and neutralize this pesky emotion so that it doesn't build up and it's not driving your communication strategy.

You may find it necessary to request a conversation with management about what you need to make this arrangement work for you. You may need to request additional help or to discuss what the future might look like for your newly restructured role. Pitch this as part of a prepared communication strategy, with the input from your mentor or others. Be purposeful when it comes to important communications during difficult times.

What You Owe Your Employer
You have an opportunity to demonstrate excellence in your work, but you don't have to pick up the slack for everyone who got laid off. You're just one person. You don't owe your employer more than one person's output just because you were chosen to remain onboard.

Dr. Celan points out: "The only thing you owe your employers is the same work you have always been doing. While some people think they need to work harder during the pandemic, you are more likely to burn out by trying too hard during a stressful time. You owe it to yourself and to your employer to take care of your mental health -- keep up consistent effort, rather than being the candle that burns brightest and then burns out fastest."

Self-Care in Hard Times
At a certain point, it's important to let go of the past and focus on the situation you're in now. Then take good care of yourself in this new space. Dr. Celan advises: "A consistent routine is key. Ensure that you are sleeping, exercising, and eating healthy food at similar times every day. These may seem like basics, but you'd be surprised how many people are neglecting their basic needs, and what a difference a good night's rest can make. Prioritize relaxation so you can keep going through this difficult time."

Without a doubt, you are in a difficult spot. Finesse it by inviting support, practicing good communication, and taking care of yourself. Then mentally punch out, knowing that you're doing everything you should be to own this role.