How to Handle a Layoff: A Step-By-Step Guide

Image: Tenor/ TraceyVonsick

When our colleague’s friend, Bernard*, was told to go to the office early on a Monday morning “for a chat”, he had a bad feeling.

Monday was not a usual work-from-office day for the company. Friendly chats with HR don’t happen early in the morning before anyone else has reached the office. And in the weeks prior, there’d been talk going around about the company’s US office cutting staff. All the signs pointed to one conclusion: It was layoff season. 

Bernard knew what he was going to hear, and didn’t need to go to the office to hear it. He stayed at home that Monday, and left the company within the week with only compensation pay.

The only thing unusual about Bernard’s story is that he chose not to go to the office to receive the bad news. Layoffs are worryingly common these days—all of us know a friend or family member who’s experienced one, or perhaps have even experienced one ourselves in some capacity. Bernard’s took things pretty okay, and he’s doing fine now, but not everyone comes out of a layoff unscathed.

Layoffs can take a massive toll on your mental health. In 2009, researchers looked at more than 300 studies and found that 34% of unemployed individuals had psychological problems—almost twice that for employed individuals (16%). Mental health issues like anxiety and depression cost Singapore’s economy almost S$16 billion each year, according to a joint study by the Duke-NUS Medical School and Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

So, how does one cope after being retrenched? Here’s our guide for those of you out there who’ve been laid off.

* Not his real name 


What is a layoff?

The first thing we want to do is clarify what a layoff means; it’s important to understand what a layoff is in order for you to prepare for, cope with, and navigate the emotional challenges that come with it.

A company layoff, also referred to as a workforce reduction or downsizing, is when an organisation reduces its staff numbers by letting go of a certain number of employees. Layoffs can happen in any industry, although industries like technology and retail tend to be hit worse than education sectors and government service.

This year has been a tough one for layoffs—Forbes’ Derek Saul writes that “2023 has been a bloodbath”. In Singapore, retrenchment rates rose from the second quarter of 2022 for a whole year, before finally cooling off and dipping in Q2 2023. Grab, Citigroup, Meta, Amazon, and Google are just some of the companies that we saw in the news this year for layoff exercises.

Image: The Straits Times


Why do layoffs happen?

Layoffs aren’t done willy-nilly. They’re strategic decisions made to better a company’s financial health through cost-cutting, streamline operations through restructuring, or adapt to changing circumstances and shifting market conditions.

In short, they’re a business decision. Company leaders assess the organisation’s financial health through metrics like revenue, profitability and cash flow when making downsizing decisions. It’s about the company’s performance as a business—not your performance at work.


Who is affected by a layoff?

Everyone is affected by a layoff. Obviously, workers who have been let go are the most directly affected. In one fell swoop, these workers lose their job, colleagues/work friends, and source of income. Often, this happens in a short period of time—the shortest we’ve heard is getting the news in the morning and turning in their work laptop and office pass by lunchtime. Imagine leaving the house for work in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and coming back home in the middle of the day unemployed. It’s even worse if you’ve got a little one at home and a home loan that you need to find a way to continue servicing—unfortunately, another true story we’ve heard.

Colleagues who didn’t get laid off may have to take on more work that their colleagues used to do. Even if they don’t, survivor guilt and layoff anxiety are very real issues that could plague their mental health at work everyday, in turn affecting their work productivity and performance.

Finally, as heartless as the organisation’s leaders may seem (they were the ones who pulled the plug, weren’t they?), they aren’t immune to the mental toll of layoffs either. It can’t feel good to terminate an employee. Even if it’s purely a business decision at heart, the consequences of that decision negatively affect people’s livelihoods.


How do I cope with a layoff?

If you’ve just been laid off, we’re sorry. We can imagine this is a tough time for you, and that these may be dark, murky waters you’ll be navigating in the days and weeks ahead. To help you cope with the emotional and psychological fallout, we’d like to offer some tips.


Step 1: Compose yourself. Affirm your worth.

It’s difficult to predict how someone might react after being laid off. All of the 5 stages of grief may be applicable, in any order: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

I’ve seen firsthand a great deal of livid anger and teary sadness in someone who just received the bad news. That’s why the first thing to do if you’ve been laid off is to get calm. Give yourself time to go through a few or all of the 5 stages of grief. No one makes good decisions when distressed, so it’s important to centre yourself before you do anything else.

On the flipside, I also have a friend, K, who moved straight to calm acceptance: “When the news hit that I was one of the few being laid off, I actually didn’t feel all that sad. I never really questioned my own self-worth or felt sorry for myself.”

K was a worker in a large tech firm who got laid off last year—from his very first job fresh out of university. He knew something instinctively that anyone who is laid off should, in their own time, come to terms with: Your value goes beyond your job, and this situation doesn’t define you. Workers are not laid off because they are incompetent. Businesses’ performance and the state of the economy ebb and flow, and sometimes we are unlucky enough to be caught in a downturn. That says something about the direction the company needs to take, not the quality of your work performance.


Step 2: Get a hold of what’s happening.

Once you’re ready, figure out what’s going to happen now. You want to tie up the loose ends with your (now former) company. Get the answers to things like:

  • What are the details of your compensation package?
  • What work do you have to hand over?
  • When is your last day of employment?

What do you do if you find that the amount of compensation you were given feels unjust? According to the Ministry of Manpower, the norm is to give retrenched workers between 2 weeks to 1 month salary per year of service, depending on how the company is doing financially and the industry you’re in. If you’re in a unionised company where the retrenchment benefit is stated in the collective agreement, the norm is 1 month’s salary for each year of service. Additionally, if you’re retrenched shortly after a salary cut, MOM says that your company should use your salary before the cut to decide on the amount of compensation.

If you do not receive the retrenchment benefits you know you’re supposed to, file a claim with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) within 6 months of your last date of employment. 

For K, the person mentioned in the previous section, knowing their last day or work and how much compensation would be given actually gave them motivation to move on. “I was just interested in finding out how much the package was. And that gave me incentive to find a new job ASAP, because I wanted to get the “free” money from the company for laying me off.”

Not everyone thinks like K. Everyone moves on and moves forward in their own time, and with different mindsets. No matter yours, make sure you find your own peace with the situation and gain clarity before you proceed. Ask all the questions you need to, and try your best to let go of any ill feelings—your managers or HR personnel aren’t the bad guys because they deliver the news, or are powerless in the fallout. Neither are the big bosses to blame for doing what’s best for the business—that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do.

One tip we have is to make sure you gather all the information you need for your CV before you hand over your work laptop and officially leave the company. No, we’re not asking you to steal company information, but you should ensure that you have the data or work samples you need to show your future prospective employers what you’re capable of. 

For example, if you’re a content writer like me, it’d be easier to collate all the links to the articles you’ve published while you’re still in the company. Alternatively, make sure you have some way of contacting your colleagues and manager still in the company, via mobile, email, LinkedIn, etc. This gives you an avenue to reach out to them should you need help when you’re ready to start looking for a new job.


Step 3: Make a financial plan.

As much as you shouldn’t stress out after getting laid off, you shouldn’t ignore your finances. The fact is, you’ll be without a salary for a while—who knows how long?—and you should budget for that as soon as possible to avoid even greater stress later if you become pressed for cash. 

When making your post-layoff financial plan, the first thing to do is assess your income inflows and outflows. Bear in mind that your remuneration package is meant to help you tide things over for a while. On top of that, you should have some savings and perhaps additional unemployment benefits or passive income streams that you can tap into.

Next, take stock of any bills, debts and other financial obligations you know you’ll need to fulfil. These are non-negotiable items. You’ll also want to consider your spending habits—use a budgeting app or go at it with a spreadsheet if you need to. 

Factoring all these in, figure out how long you can do without a salary, and what you can or can’t do during this time. Generally, 3 months is a good ballpark time frame to plan for. If necessary, start making certain lifestyle changes to cut costs. If you’re having trouble with these lifestyle adjustments, it doesn’t hurt to also consider other ways to earn some income through freelance, gig, or part-time work that you’re decently interested in, and that matches your skill set.

It’s important to work out your financial situation because it also lets you know what immediate, financially-taxing plans you can make. One friend I know went revenge travelling after getting laid off, making one trip after the other and soaking in that magic wanderlust dust before they felt ready to face the job market again. As we said earlier, do things in your own time—but also make sure you can afford them.


Step 4: Reach out—for both support and opportunities.

During any difficult times when stress and anxiety levels might be high, it’s important to have people you can lean on, such as family and friends. At the same time, we understand that getting laid off isn’t the easiest news to share.

In your own time, let both your personal and professional connections know what’s happened. Remember, there is no shame or embarrassment in getting laid off. You were good at what you did, and the retrenchment had nothing to do with your performance at work!

Another reason it’s important to reach out to others is that you never know what sorts of employment opportunities your connections may help you find. Perhaps they know someone hiring for a role perfect for you. Or perhaps their endorsement on your LinkedIn page could sway things in your favour at the next role you’re up for. The next big step in your career could be a text message away!

There are also several resources from organisations or the government that you can tap on for financial, retraining, and counselling support:


Step 5: Start the job hunt.

It may surprise some of you that we’ve taken this long to get to the part about actually looking for a new job. But that’s because we want to honour the toll getting laid off takes on one’s mental health, and assure you that you can and should take the time you need to get to this stage.

The first thing to do is update your CV and LinkedIn.  If you’re anything like me, that’s that dusty old document you open once in a looong time, pretty much only when you’re transitioning from one job to another. Fill in your latest employment history, including how long you worked there, key projects you undertook, and specific achievements you made for the team or company. While you’re at it, it’s also worthwhile to look at your personal brand as a whole.

Next, it’s time to go shopping for your next job. LinkedIn is an obvious choice, especially with their Easy Apply that, well, makes it easy for you to apply for jobs with your info pre-filled and just 1-3 application questions for you to answer. But don’t forget to also browse through other job search websites, such as JobsDB and MyCareersFuture. 


Step 6: Look after yourself.

We’re not going to lie—it can be very difficult to keep your head up. “Stay positive!” people might say. Easier said than done. Perhaps a better mantra should be “stay active”—keeping busy and doing what you love can help to keep you feeling fulfilled during this period. This can look pretty different for different people—one person may pick up a new sport, while another might restart an old hobby. Still others might turn to meeting up with old friends they haven’t seen in ages, or perhaps picking up a casual part-time or freelance job. Do whatever floats your boat and keeps your spirits up.

Fulfilment is no joke—according to the Randstad Workmonitor 2023 global survey of 35,000 workers, 57% said their job fulfils their need for a sense of purpose. Your job doesn’t need to be your raison d’être, but it certainly occupies a certain role in one’s life to help you feel productive and fulfilled.

If you find yourself struggling, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. We want to dispel any stigma associated with seeking out a counsellor or therapist for your stress, anxiety, depression, or anger. In fact, we encourage you to face these feelings for not just your mental, but also physical health. According to a 2009 study, employees without any pre-existing health conditions faced an 83% higher risk of developing health issues within the initial 15 to 18 months following a layoff. These health concerns typically included stress-related illnesses such as hypertension, heart disease, and arthritis.


Layoffs aren’t easy.

At the end of the day, we want to leave you with this assurance: Layoffs suck. They’re tough,  they can be brutal, and they can feel cruel. After a layoff, take the time you need to recentre yourself. Keep a calm mind, plan your next steps, and go at your own pace.

But even with a solid plan in place, even if you hype yourself up or calm yourself down, it won’t be easy to stay positive. At least, not every day. And on days that life feels harder, never disregard your feelings as just you being “weak”. There are no wrong feelings, and it’s never too early or late to address yours.


Happy World Mental Health Day! Share this article with a friend or family member you care about.