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Retrenchment strategies

Building Resilience Principle 3: Maintain perspective


This is the fourth short article in the series about the principles of building resilience. It has its origin in the research we carried out on resilience and the training based on these principles which is designed to assist people build their resilience. Delegates report the training builds their inner resourcefulness and enables them to live more joyful and fulfilling lives.


The third principle of building resilience is: Maintain perspective and concerns the inner world of one’s thoughts. It is particularly important because as a species we are programmed from our past to be more alert for negative than positive. This negative focus was very useful in providing narrow, fixed and detailed focus when confronted by a sabre-toothed lion or marauding tribes on the veld of ancient Africa, but is less helpful in finding creative solutions to modern day adversities which require open, creative and flexible thinking. In today’s’ world, this ancient negative bias sometimes intrudes into our lives as unwelcome strong and persistent negative thoughts. One person described this ruminating negative thought pattern to be: “like in a washing machine … going round and round … then pausing …. and then going round and round again; on and on”.


To build resilience, negatively biased thinking and persistent negative self talk can be reframed. This can be done by finding alternative ways of thinking about the problem or event, such as how one can learn from it, or how one can accept it. Other ways of reframing are to choose milder and less calamitous ways of expressing the adversity, or to change the statements that run through one’s mind into questions, and then focus your thoughts on finding answers to the questions.


Some people find that changing their behaviour changes their negative thought bias and thinking patterns. Examples are exercising; talking with supportive friends; eating a favourite food such as chocolate or ice-cream; shopping; going to movies; reading a novel; partying. Not all these activities will reduce everyone’s negative thinking – the challenge is to find what works for you. The outcome should be distraction from the stress of the adversity, recharging energy and then returning with renewed vigour to deal with the stress and difficulties.


It is also useful where possible to avoid or minimise situations which trigger persistent negative thoughts. Examples we were given of situations to avoid were of particular events (e.g. a stressful monthly family get together), people (e.g. negative colleagues or difficult clients) and physical conditions (e.g. tiredness and being hungry). Alternatively, challenging negativism in others, such as negative statements and opinions that are unfounded, biased, or open to interpretation may also be a useful way of controlling one’s own negative thoughts in order to maintain perspective.


A final element of this principle of building resilience is maintaining perspective by engaging in enjoyable, relaxing and recharging activities. Taking steps to change the scenery, pace and people around one can provide a counterbalance to the intense demands and naturally narrowing thought focus when dealing with adversity. This was variously expressed as “taking time out for myself”; “having me-time”; and “taking time to smell the roses”.


What is your most effective method of maintaining perspective in tough time so as to be resilient?


Things to do when retrenched….. or advice to give people retrenched


Being retrenched is inevitably felt as a devastating blow which affects not only the salary earner, but also dependents, and the wider circle of family and friends. Even worse, when a plant or factory closes, whole communities are suddenly at risk. This is the environment we are facing.


So what should you do when you get the news everyone fears – “so sorry for all your hard work and many years of service, but we are retrenching you”? What practical steps can you take when you yourself are retrenched?
Alternatively, what can you do when someone close to you has been retrenched? What advice can you give?


Very useful advice is given on the web site: It details 100 positive suggestions under headings of: around the house; physical and mental health; useful hobbies to learn; financial changes and so on.


Another way is building resilience through community activities. Many useful suggestions are given on the web site:


The message is to do something and preferably do several of the things suggested on these web sites. If you have been retrenched, you need to deal with the implications. Start by talking to your loved ones and community.


If you have friends and loved ones who have been retrenched, talk to them about how they feel, and what they are doing to cope with their changed circumstances. Reach out to them. Get involved with them and their plans. You will help them, and if you yourself have been retrenched, you may find that helping others in some strange ways actually helps you. It did for me.



Can retrenchment be socially responsible?


“Retrenchment” and “socially responsible” seem to be the ultimate contradiction in terms! How can putting productive and competent people on the street be socially responsible?


Retrenchemnt nightmare

Retrenchment has awful consequences. For a family, it’s a terrible calamity to suddenly be deprived of income. For the individual who is retrenched, they are typically racked by:

·       Shame and guilt for having “allowed” this to happen

·       Great anger at others, as well as at themselves

·       Loss of confidence

·       Loss of trust in the retrenching organization


Industrial Relations practices require that organisations ameliorate the effects of their retrenchments. This usually translates into giving the retrenched person what they consider to be a “fair” retrenchment package and sometimes even providing counselling at the time of giving the retrenchment notice. This is however inevitably experienced by the retrenched person as a superficial band-aid that misses the mark!


How then can an organisation that strives to be a good corporate citizen retrench people in a way that minimises these distressing impacts?


The focus of a best practice socially responsible retrenchment strategy lies in what happens after the retrenchment: how is the retrenched person assisted to cope with the effects of the retrenchment? This requires helping the retrenched person address 5 specific areas:

  1. Build inner strength and resourcefulness to cope with the tough times they are experiencing, including dealing with their anger and hurt
  2. Understand the changes and decisions needed to cope with their changed financial circumstances, including deciding what to do with the retrenchment package
  3. Reappraise their life aspirations, career goals and income generating possibilities
  4. Decide and take actions to re-enter formal employment, or
  5. Decide and take actions to start or buy a small business


The outcome of a socially responsible retrenchment strategy is that the retrenched staff are able to get through their dark night of adversity quicker and even be better off than they were before.  


That’s the great irony of experiencing really tough times like retrenchment. Although no-one actively seeks out adversity, it is necessary for our status–quo to be disrupted for personal growth and development to take place. This doesn’t happen during good times. Resilience helps us reconcile, heal, make changes and ultimately thrive after adversity.


A retrenching organisation can thus be a powerful force for good by assisting retrenched staff become more resilient and replace their income stream. In this way retrenchment can be the stimulus for major change that results in personal growth leading to higher levels of self actualisation.


Wouldn’t it be wonderful if organisations adopted a socially responsible retrenchment strategy that resulted in retrenched people saying that whilst they wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, it was the best possible thing that could have happened to them?



Retrenchment feels as shameful as pornography!

I was in Exclusive Books. As I asked the sales assistant for the latest books on retrenchment, my throat closed up; my voice became squeaky; I couldn’t help but check if the next customer had overheard. I was so embarrassed. I felt like I was requesting shameful pornography!


I was retrenched 9 years ago, but the same powerful feelings came flooding back to me in the bookshop. Guilt: somehow I had not managed to survive the downsizing; shame: as a breadwinner I had failed my family; humiliation: I was a failure; embarrassment: what would my friends and former colleagues think of me?


I flashed back to when I changed overnight from a high powered, successful executive to an unemployed dad without income and a family to support. My wife was very ill and I had to start doing the grocery shopping. I was standing in the supermarket in front of a huge variety of baked beans and was unable to decide to buy the No-Name brand for R1.99 or the well known brand for R5.99? What was the difference? Why was there such price disparity? Should I just buy the least expensive? The more I wrestled with these questions, the tenser I became, until in a silent rage at my helplessness and ridiculous indecision, tears burst out of my eyes. Wide-eyed stares and a stranger’s attempts to assist me just made it worse.


“Wow!” I thought, as I shook myself back to the present in the book shop, “what amazing power this 9 year old memory has: I still carry the pain of retrenchment in my mind and body like a disease”.


The organisational retrenchment process I went through was designed to be scrupulously legally correct but it felt clinical and unfeeling. I was shocked and devastated – I never believed I, of all people, would be retrenched. Help was offered but of wrong sort and at the wrong time. I didn’t need counselling from a clinical psychologist about the loss I had suffered, but did need help to become mentally strong, resourceful and able to bounce back. My family not need to talk to a wellness counsellor about the calamity their dad had suffered to “deal with their feelings”, but they did need me to find ways of replacing our income stream – and quickly!


Eventually I did find a path to emerge from my dark night, to regain my equilibrium, and even to emerge better in many respects than before.


Through my experiences I learnt that there is a lot an organisation can do to help and support people they are retrenching. Practical assistance can be given to assist the retrenched person getting back on their feet again in the shortest possible time:

  • ·Getting rid of some of the anger and negative feelings and start the process of healing;
  • ·Building inner resourcefulness and mental grit to be able start the process of bouncing back;
  • ·Reassessing their career choices and what they would like to achieve in their lives
  • ·Deciding whether to replace the lost income stream by becoming an employee again, or becoming an employer or self-employer;
  • ·Developing a plan with milestones to implement the income replacing decisions;
  • ·Dealing with the dramatically changed personal financial situation;
  •  Making wise decisions about the retrenchment package.


Responding to the dramatic change brought on by retrenchment is not for sissies!


There’s a rich irony in this adversity however. Although no one seeks it out, it is necessary to disrupt one’s status quo and initiate change, to promote personal growth and ultimately create thriving in new and different ways. Retrenchment certainly achieves the disruption to the status quo. How one reacts to the disruption determines the quality of life after retrenchment.


What colour is your parachute? 2009By the way, I found very few, if any, decent books on retrenchment at the bookshop. The one that caught my attention was Richard Nelson Bolles: What colour is your parachute: 2009. This well known classic has stood the test of time and has a bit of a cult following.