How To Deal With Being The One ‘Left Behind’ At Work

Photographed by Anna Jay.
"I started work at 4am at least twice a week and worked until after midnight most nights for the best part of 18 months. I felt that I had the whole company on my shoulders." – Rose, 29, London.
Last year headlines made much of ‘The Great Resignation’ – that the tumult and uncertainty of the last three years has prompted an upsurge in people leaving their jobs. Simultaneously, the pandemic has led to waves of furloughs and redundancies. But those who leave (by force or by choice) are not the only ones feeling the pressure – so too are those like Rose, who was ‘left behind’ at work.
Staying on in a workplace with a shrinking headcount is a disorienting experience. Depending on your particular circumstances it could feel like you are being left behind as others move on, or it could evoke feelings of sadness and even guilt that you have remained while others were let go. 
Ideally, an organisation's headcount should be sufficient to handle the workload but that isn’t always the case. For Rose, who works in media, a large portion of her team were put first on furlough and then made redundant over the course of the pandemic but the workload for the remaining staff actually increased as the company pivoted to the digital-first opportunities that presented themselves.
Mariel, 28, now works in software but previously worked for a small retail startup. After several redundancy rounds in the pandemic (as well as a large number of people jumping ship of their own accord) she says she "had to pick up work from customer service, marketing and operations as there was almost no one left in these departments. I was also on 50% furlough but it was impossible to complete my work in the morning." The stress of work was paired with sadness about losing colleagues. "[We] had previously been a tight-knit group so watching people being made redundant or leave due to the state the business was in was really sad."
Business psychologist David Lurie says that the way multiple people leaving work will impact you depends very much on the situation and that the reason you are still there will drive your response. "If for example your colleagues have been leaving to get better jobs, someone might think that they're not talented enough as they've not been headhunted or they may already lack the confidence in order to find a new job. But on the other hand, they may quite rightly think that the flexible working arrangements and benefits they've got are good and so it’s worth staying."
This will also affect how much a reduced headcount impacts your day-to-day work. If senior management doesn’t properly support you or respond to the gaps in staff, either with new hires or proper compensation, it’s unsurprising that it will have a knock-on effect outside of work.
Rose says that she was able to gain all the experience that comes with stepping up. "I was learning new skills, tools, systems, management techniques, which was all great. But this wasn't reflected in credit, pay or job title. I believe that had these things been adjusted correctly, it might have made the whole thing seem more worthwhile."
Whether you stay or go in this situation is, like your emotional response, entirely dependent on you. If you want to stay and take advantage of any opportunities that open up, there are some ways to go about it. 
To manage an increased workload it’s important to be proactive, says Kim Sprague, an accredited women's leadership coach. "Be proactive about having a conversation with your manager – don't wait for them to come to you or until you're already drowning in work." She continues: "Be honest about what extra responsibilities you can take on and any areas where you may need extra support or agreement to deprioritise other responsibilities."
Equally you should get precise clarity on leaders’ expectations at this time, says Nejmi Alexander, a career coach at Seven Career Coaching. "Expectation management is a really critical skill that pays dividends in times of high pressure or increased workload, as is having a clear understanding of the order of priorities. Simple clarifying questions can really help, such as: 'Which of these are the most critical for you?' or 'If I had to make any trade-offs, which area could I deprioritise?'"
At the same time it’s incredibly important to set boundaries, says Life Coach Directory member Franziska Cecchetti-Pretsch. "The more you take on extra work, the more you give the message that it’s okay to do so for you, so be clear about your boundaries. This can be very difficult if you are not someone who does that easily but practise it as much as possible and take your boundaries seriously." She adds: "Point out to your manager that if you are increasingly overstretched and burning out, it would mean less quality of work and also possible time off being sick."
Whether you decide to stay or go, don’t jump the gun and make decisions based solely on others, says David. "It is a very bad idea to make the decision yourself just because you're scared that you might have to leave or you think that things might be better somewhere else." Whether leaving is the right choice for you depends on your situation but he emphasises considering the decision properly before it’s made, taking into account your rights as an employee. "One's rights as an employee are only generally protected after a period of time. There are exceptions like disability, age and gender discrimination but you can be pretty much dismissed for any reason in your first 24 months." If you're leaving to avoid potential redundancies, it's worth remembering that redundancy generally comes with a payout. "If you're gonna have to leave anyway," he says, "you might as well leave in the best position."
You can use times of change to your advantage, either within the company or beyond it. For example, try being strategic with your negotiations, says Kim. "If a pay rise or immediate promotion isn't an option and you're being asked to pick up a significant amount of work from an outgoing senior team member, instead negotiate a title promotion to 'Acting [e.g. Senior Manager]'. This will boost your CV and internal profile while your employer recruits for a replacement, at no cost to them."
You can also use this time to really think and be reflective, says Nejmi. "Consider what your career goals are and what the change in situation represents towards those goals – change can represent either threat or opportunity depending on how you perceive it – when you can see the opportunity, establish the actions to put in place to realise it."
This works whether you stay or go. Everyone we spoke to for this story eventually left their job after taking time to find an opportunity elsewhere that suited their future interests. Mariel, having retrained in software, moved to a role in March 2021 where she could focus solely on development instead of picking up other responsibilities. Rose left her job in pursuit of new challenges in summer 2021. Taking stock gives you a chance to get your bearings and make sure your next move is worthwhile, not only for your career but for your mental wellbeing – whether that means a change of scene or more stability. Finding what works for you and your life, not what people expect of you, is the ultimate goal.