Redundancy, noun. Definition: the state of not being necessary.

Remote Control, noun. Definition: control of the operation or performance of an apparatus from a distance.

You know that little light on your TV and computer that stays on after they’re switched off? A barely noticeable glimmer that signifies ‘standby’ mode, it’s a lingering reminder that, just seconds before, there was something far brighter and meaningful on the screen. That was me in November 2020: that little glow blinking in the sudden darkness. Shell-shocked. Slightly terrified – actually hugely terrified. Redundant.

Even though I felt totally, utterly alone, statistically I wasn’t. According to the Office of National Statistics, in the three months prior to September 2020, redundancies reached a record high of 314,000, an increase of 181,000 on the quarter. (The figure is significantly higher now, and likely to increase further.) Given the global shift towards home-working during the pandemic, how many of those had this lightning bolt delivered via a screen? I did, and it was traumatic. In fact, it’s only now, a few months down the line, that I’ve felt able to reflect on that time – and what I’ve learned from it.

Let me take you back to November 2020. The UK was in the midst of a second lockdown, the nation once again cooped up at home, with dark winter evenings adding to a stifling sense that the walls were closing in on us. As we shrank back into our homes-come-makeshift-offices, our only window on the world was a screen, our only contact with colleagues an endless and exhausting succession of TEAMS or ZOOM meetings. Smiles fixed in place, we sat in our little virtual boxes, sometimes varying the backdrop to liven things up, but still looking – and feeling – like a battery cage of office drones living at work.

The convenience of home-working was undeniable, and for the large part professional effectiveness was uncompromised. But we are all far more than our job functions: we need colleagues. We need real human interaction. Yet for months on end, impromptu office chit-chat was replaced by contrived virtual conversations; opportunities for spontaneous praise and recognition gave way to stage-managed ZOOM meetings to deliver the requisite gratitude and public applause alongside the quarterly results.

More rehearsed performance than spontaneous engagement, such meetings were exhaustingly intense yet curiously detached, leaving us feeling drained more than invigorated, isolated more than connected. Yet if we weren’t included in meetings, the resulting sense of exclusion fostered not so much FOMO as uncertainty and paranoia.

As if to add insult to injury, government reminders about a ‘looming mental health crisis’ seemed laughably out of touch: our entire sense of wellbeing had been hanging by a thread for so long, none of us could recall when it had started to unravel. Yet despite struggling to remember what month it is, we stoically masked our creeping stress and anxiety, continuing the silent national conspiracy that we were all coping – that we were ‘fine’.

Because it’s easy to fake being fine until the ‘off’ button is pressed, isn’t it? No one is there to see you sit staring blankly into your coffee after the call is disconnected; you don’t need to hide in the office loo to have a cry. (Yes, men cry too.) Even counselling via the EAP moved online during the peak of Covid. But it felt one step removed, a little hollow; it lacked humanity.

In fact, what struck me most strongly during this time was that, as employees, we ceased to be people during the pandemic and instead became numbers, statistics, resources for businesses. Conversations about the future happened behind our backs, when we weren’t even in the same building, let alone the same room. Furlough. Cutbacks. Rationalisation.

Even routine performance reviews became terrifying, over-shadowed by threats to company profits and riddled with a subtext of secret executive conversations about how to readjust the business. How to cut costs – and staff. When it came to redundancy consultations, the pandemic revealed employers’ true colours in startling Technicolour. Good managers handled it sensitively, compassionately; others dished out bad news like they were scraping yesterday’s leftovers into the bin. 

No matter how you feel about your job, one thing is true: it pays the bills and keeps a roof over your head – perhaps your family’s head, too. It’s also a huge part of your sense of routine, identity, status, self-worth and, crucially, purpose. People often refer to redundancy as being like a bereavement; in fact, I liken it more to a divorce. Both parties are still alive, but they have to completely reinvent themselves. And it’s tough. Emotional. No matter how the news is packaged or presented, the message is the same: you are unwanted. Surplus to requirements. Switched first to ‘standby mode’, swiftly followed by a brutal stab to the ‘off’ button. There is no lonelier, or darker place to be.

The phrase ‘mental health impact’ is often bandied around, but we need to talk more honestly about what that actually looks like, particularly in traumatic situations such as redundancy. It can mean crushing anxiety, of course – perhaps debilitating panic attacks. Insomnia. Depression. PTSD. Suicidal thoughts. The only thing that can possibly make it worse is receiving that news via a TV screen, while you’re sitting in your tracksuit at the kitchen table as your boss (typically accompanied by an HR representative) fires the bullet, and all you can think is: ‘Please let this be over before the kids come into the room.’

Home-schooling. Remember that? Most parents try to shield their children from bad news, but try concealing the sudden panic, terror and shock of redundancy while your kids are sitting in the next room battling with lessons during a global pandemic! Already acutely conscious of their confusion, stress and vulnerability, the pressure to protect them from further stress – the financial worries that instantly weigh down on you – can tip people over the edge. Surely, you think, the company where you have worked loyally and diligently all these years will offer a supporting hand? But even as the question ‘What now?’ forms in your dry mouth, the ZOOM meeting – that last flickering connection with the business you’ve dedicated a significant portion of your life to – is switched off. Terminated.

How did I feel being made redundant while working remotely? I felt as though I’d been switched off by remote-control: zapped by forces greater than myself. I felt as though a mechanical voice instructed me to ‘exit quietly’ through a door I hadn’t even realised existed, with absolutely no idea what might be on the other side – and no way of stepping back into the room and asking them to think again. Was this situation avoidable? In cold, hard business terms, perhaps not. Could it have been handled more sensitively and compassionately? Almost certainly. It’s hard enough to be doing a job, any job right now; it’s even harder to have one taken away without warning after 13 years.

These continue to be strange, almost dehumanised times, and a very human style of management is called for if we’re to stand a chance of navigating our way out of the global mental health crisis that – yes – we are well and truly in the thick of. Leadership underpinned by a thoughtfully developed, intentional, properly trained and resourced, systemic wellbeing strategy, not just relying on sticking plasters such as ‘ambassadors’ or links to guided meditation, or the ‘outsourcing’ of redundancy support.

The best leaders inspire rather than dictate, motivate rather than criticise, listen more than they talk, but right now what is needed more than anything is compassion, empathy and conscious, emotionally intelligent, authentic leadership. Oh, and let’s dispense with well-trodden redundancy platitudes such as: ‘This could be the best thing that ever happened to you!’ Or, my own particular favourite: ‘We’re giving you a stepping stone to achieve the future you want!’ Redundancy can eventually lead to better and brighter things, but it’s a tough path to travel, requiring an incredible amount of resilience and hard work on the part of the person who has been – to use another popular euphemism – ‘let go’.

What does compassionate, authentic leadership look like in practice? Here are my suggestions:

  • Be empathic. Before launching into meetings (virtual or IRL), invite everyone to share where they are in that moment. Listen, learn and be curious. Reflect on what you could do to help, and what might not be helping.
  • Be present. Don’t tap away at your computer during video calls, or start reading something else on your screen or desk.
  • Be aware. Listen to the gaps and tune in to unspoken clues; notice when colleagues seem distant, strained, or are behaving noticeably out of character.
  • Be kind. It might feel like there is little you can do practically to help, but taking the time to talk through your colleagues’ experiences and feelings, can help them feel less alone.
  • Be real. Remember your team is comprised of people, not processors. They don’t exist purely to perform a job function.
  • Be respectful. Even the slightest criticism is magnified when delivered remotely, and receiving challenging, or just plain bad news in the virtual world is extremely frightening, lonely and deeply impersonal. Always check the other person has some support around them, and if not, talk through where they might find it.
  • Be patient. Details of redundancy or settlement proposals can be overwhelming: check understanding, offer more explanation if needed, and invite the person on the receiving end to come back to you with any questions.  Openly recognise there is likely to be an impact and offer support, time and a safe space to talk it through.
  • Be sensitive. Check that the scheduling of a potentially difficult meeting works: remember there may be young children nearby, or flatmates/partners . . . or nobody at all. If you are aware someone lives alone, ask what support they might be able to call upon.
  • Be affirming. Remember it’s a role that is made redundant, not the person. Avoid negative language that makes them feel culpable, rejected or a failure.
  • Be human! Remember that there is more to life than work, and there may be other significant things going on for that person.
  • Always remember to ask one simple question: ‘How are you?’ Ask it twice – and mean it. Then listen to the answer, and don’t try to fix feelings!

I have worked incredibly hard to come through my redundancy experience and, thankfully, emerge in a better place. I hope I’m a better colleague and leader as a result of the things I’ve learned, and not only from others. Yes, reaching out to people you trust and respect is so important. Don’t let pride, or the unfathomable stigma that still surrounds redundancy to deter you from allowing others to help and support you. Pick up the phone, meet for coffee and a chat: express, don’t repress. But alongside the reassurance, learning and potential networking opportunities with friends and colleagues, there is also self-work.

The one silver lining in the redundancy thunder cloud is the (enforced) chance to press pause: to take stock, unpick your values, reassess your priorities and generally figure out how you want your life and career goals to align more happily going forward. What helped me in that process was coaching: having dedicated time within a safe, empathic space to talk through how I wanted life to be, and what might be stopping me from getting there. Employing a coach to support me through this time and process was essential.

No one can take away the pain and distress of redundancy, but the blow can be delivered compassionately, and my belief is that, wherever possible, companies should offer coaching to those affected – even more so now, with the impending wind-down of the furlough scheme, which has been a lifeline for so many.

Coaching can be transformational and empowering; it can turn one of the worst experiences of your life into a positive. It is also a safe place where you can be authentic and explore what is really important to you, and to start setting your goals towards your desired outcomes. It helped me enormously, and as a qualified coach myself, I feel very privileged to be able to help others on their own journey.

With the right support, we can all learn to thrive again after tough times; we can find fresh clarity on our goals and increased self-belief to achieve them. There is life after redundancy, and I intend to live it to the fullest. I hope I can encourage you to strive for the same – to reach for your dreams, one step at a time.