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Left Behind in a Layoff: Getting Ready for What’s Next

The pink slips have been handed out, the severance checks cashed, and the farewell drinks consumed. Everyone has offered their condolences to those who were let go, yet you’re still here, reeling in your cubicle, wondering if maybe you’re the one who really deserves the well wishes, sympathetic words, and free rounds of strong drinks.

As a four-time layoff survivor (and two-time victim), I’ve experienced all the panic, depression, fear, and anxiety that comes with staying on the job when others have been let go. There are some things you can do to ease the stress; they’re fairly common sense courses of action, but when you’re in the grips of anxiety and worried that your next paycheck may be your last, sometimes it’s hard to think clearly. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned after surviving a few layoffs, it’s that more are usually not far behind, and being ready when the next ax falls is crucial—just in case.

1. Get Up-to-Date on Your Doctor Appointments
You can elect to continue your healthcare coverage through COBRA, but the sticker shock of COBRA prices alone may kill you long before any health-related issue. Thanks to COBRA’s high cost, many people opt to go with an emergency-only plan when they’re unemployed, which depending on the plan, means that procedures like teeth cleaning and mole removal may be out. Scheduling your annual doctor visits, updating prescriptions, and getting lab work done while you’re still covered gives you roughly a year before you have to make all the rounds again—hopefully plenty of time to find a new job and new healthcare coverage.

If you’re certain that unemployment is looming around the corner, it may be a smart time to drain your flexible spending account. Most plans allow you to use the money for things like contact lenses, braces, and over-the-counter medicines, which includes cold and allergy medicines and aspirin (which you’ll undoubtedly need after a layoff for either stress-related headaches or layoff party hangovers). Take advantage while you can—if you don’t use it, you lose it, and that might cause a queasiness that no flex plan medicine can cure. 

2. Retrieve Personal Files and Contacts from Your Work Computer
Layoffs or no layoffs, it never hurts to do a periodic backup of all the unfinished screenplays, random party pics, Shins downloads, tax papers, and other documents that have found their way onto your work hard drive. If you’re fortunate enough to work for a company who will give you limited access to your computer and some time to collect your things after the unsavory notice of your forced termination, good for you. But the time allotted to you may be rushed, or simply not enough to get everything you need. Many employers don’t give employees the luxury of access back onto your computer, and relying on someone else to retrieve your documents once you’re gone can prove challenging. Email yourself important files, burn them onto CD, and make sure to get all your professional and personal contacts out of your work email. It’s also smart to periodically clear your cache—just to avoid the embarrassment of having managers and colleagues learn about your or Perez Hilton addiction.

3. Create a Layoff-Ready Budget
There’s nothing like the pending doom of potential unemployment to help you reevaluate your savings plan. Now’s the time to batten down the hatches on your spending to ready yourself for any cutbacks you’ll need to make in the event of another round of company cuts. Take some time to write down every single expense you incur in a given month, being completely honest with yourself about how much you spend. Once it’s all on paper, you’ll probably find some easy places you could spend less money, like bringing your lunch to work a few days a week instead of eating out, or opting for a movie on Friday nights instead of the happy hour that turns into five delirious hours of overpriced drinks and appetizers.

This is also an ideal time to pay a visit to your financial advisor if you have one, and to potentially get an advisor (if you can afford it) if you don’t have one. He or she can help you assess your current financial strategy and whether or not you should make any changes, and can also help put together a plan for accessing more money should a layoff occur.

4. Update Your Resume and Start Networking
A previous manager once told me that she always updated her resume within the first week of starting a new job. Her rule—always be ready for anything. Most of us aren’t that industrious, though, so if you haven’t updated your resume with your latest position—or if you haven’t revisited your resume in a while—now is clearly the time to do it. Once you’re done, give it a test run and send it to friends, family, and perhaps a few trusted business contacts to see if they get a good sense of what you do, what you’re looking for, and what you’ve achieved after reading it.

Now is also a good time to start networking like crazy. Beef up your LinkedIn profile; change your contact settings to include “career opportunities” and “getting back in touch” as things you’re interested in, and perhaps ask a manager or colleague to write a recommendation for you. Make it a goal to reach out to a certain number of friends, old coworkers, managers, clients, or other business associates each day. Perhaps contact some recruiters and begin perusing job postings online. You ultimately may not want or need to find another job, but it never hurts to get the momentum swinging in your favor sooner rather than later in the event that you do.

5. Be Good to Yourself
The phrase “survival guilt” is often associated with traumatic events like airplane crashes, earthquakes, and twenty-car pileups. But believe it or not, survival guilt is a very real phenomenon for those who remain after a layoff, and the range of emotions people experience isn’t that different from other traumatic events. Remaining employees often feel guilty for not being laid off, sadness for the coworkers and friends they’ll miss, and sometimes even anger for the increased workload they may experience now that their team has been reduced.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is one of the best ways to cope with survivor guilt, which sounds counterintuitive to logic given that most people feel compelled to increase their work hours in an effort to secure their jobs in the event of another cut. But arriving and leaving at a decent hour each day allows more time to enjoy the things that really nourish our souls and ultimately help us perform at a higher level and make us better, more productive employees—dinner with family or friends, an invigorating workout, going to a concert, pursuing a hobby or taking a class, or just relaxing with a book and a glass of wine.

Besides, working until midnight every night will eventually cause burnout, and ultimately doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be part of a layoff anyway since most cutbacks are about decreasing expenditure, not about performance. As the Donald says, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” You can bet your last dollar from your last paycheck that your employer will exercise that logic when adding names to the layoff list, so you should keep it in mind too.