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Still employed? Survivor guilt in Calgary

Almost 100,000 people have lost their jobs because of the downturn in oil prices. That’s a huge number. The media says that more job cuts are to come. One large oil company announced this morning that it will cut an additional 7,000 jobs worldwide.

My neighbours are a case in point. The wife was terminated from a large oil company this past June. Her husband lost his job three months later. They both received good severance packages. The wife saw it coming but her husband was broad-sided.

Fortunately for my neighbours, they are both close to retirement age and were in good financial shape when they lost their jobs. They aren’t going to lose their house. They aren’t panicked about being poor in old age. But I’m watching the husband struggle with how to fill his days. He wasn’t planning to retire yet.

The CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) announced last week that it has changed Calgary’s rating to strong for risk of a decrease in housing prices. They say prices will be affected in the fall when people that have been laid off will begin to put their houses on the market.

I noticed, as I walked through the downtown core and along Centre St yesterday, that open store fronts are beginning to pop up. The effects of the downturn are appearing everywhere. The cost of gas at the pumps is another indicator that things are bad.

And yet. There are people in the oil industry that haven’t lost their jobs. Many are being asked to do more work than they were two years ago. They don’t have staff to delegate tasks to so they have to do the work themselves. The effects of this increased workload are showing. People are starting to get tired because of the strain.

It’s hard for many of these survivors to talk about what life inside their companies is like for them because many of their friends and family members aren’t working. Many of the still-employed are experiencing guilt. They know they “have it good.” They anticipate they will make it through the downturn. They feel they don’t have the right to complain because they haven’t been affected the way many of those close to them have. Or the way my neighbours have.

Business owners in the oil industry are in a tough situation. The option to sell their businesses, which existed 18 months ago, is gone. They have to either hang onto their businesses and try to ride out the downturn, or take huge losses if they sell. That is, of course, if they can find a buyer. Survivor guilt exists here, too. At least they’re still in business. Lots of their competitors have folded or are in precarious shape.

Many of these business owners, as well as senior managers in larger companies, are faced with having to lay-off more staff. People forced to make these decisions are struggling. They know what the impact will be when they tell their employees they no longer have a job. They know the options for finding work in Calgary are poor. And so they experience survivor guilt.

Strangely, the individuals that are facing laying off staff aren’t thinking about the number of people they continue to employ. They think about the consequences for the people they will lay off, but don’t think about the people that will continue to receive a pay cheque each month.

There’s a lot of guilt out there. Guilt for continuing to have a job during the downturn. Guilt for feeling burned out and wanting support. Guilt for owning a company that hasn’t folded. Guilt for knowing that lay-offs have to continue to help the company continue to operate.

So what can the survivors do about the guilt they are experiencing? For starters, I suggest they recognize that they didn’t create the situation. They didn’t force oil prices down. They’re doing the best they can to ride out the situation until oil prices recover.

It’s true that survivors aren’t going to receive comfort from some of those that have lost their jobs. Some of those individuals, feeling myopic, will say, “Sure, poor you… I’d love to be in your situation.” Which will be true.

In the absence of support from outside, however, survivors can turn inward and offer real comfort and compassion to themselves. They can say, “Yes, this situation I’m in really is difficult… I do have tough choices to make… This is exhausting.” And they can mean it.

I’d also like to suggest that it is okay to be a survivor. Calgary is going to need survivors to make it through the downturn so that there are businesses that are prepared to hire when the downturn ends. We need survivors to continue to go to work every day, shouldering increased workloads, so that Calgary can stand up again in a year or two when the downturn ends.

Maybe more survivors deserve to hear the word thank you. So…. “thank you.”

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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