Dealing with loss and grief at work

When an employee dies, the toll it takes on the workplace can be significant
By Estelle Morrison
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/18/2010

Most of us spend a significant portion of our lives at the office, often surrounded by people we’ve worked with for years. In many work environments, co-workers can feel like an extended family of sorts.

They celebrate birthdays, weddings, births and promotions together. They share excitement when working on a new challenge or when a child reaches a milestone and, similarly, commiserate about office politics or an argument they had with a neighbour. They bond through discussions about the latest news or TV shows.

In fact, managers hope for teams who are not only talented and efficient but who can also work closely and affably together.

So it’s no surprise when an employee dies or suffers a deep personal loss, the effect on the workplace can be profound. Managers need to respond quickly and compassionately, yet still have regard for personal boundaries. Handling the situation appropriately can serve to support a corporate culture of respect and caring.

However, many managers don’t know how to respond in such a highly charged situation. There can be a variety of reasons for this. They may be dealing with their own feelings of shock and sadness or they may be uncomfortable dealing with other people’s intense emotions. Or managers simply may not know what to say or do to support the affected employees.

It’s not easy. It’s a delicate balancing act — being emotionally responsive to the workforce while at the same time being professional and trying to maintain productivity levels. However, mishandling the situation can permanently damage a manager’s and organization’s reputation and, as a result, negatively impact employee loyalty and morale.

Appropriate response multi-layered

Managing the workplace after a co-worker or employee’s family member’s death requires sensitivity and accommodation. Here are some suggestions for appropriate workplace responses:

Tailored response: The depth and breadth of the response should reflect the nature of the workplace’s relationship with the employee or the deceased. For example, when a new employee experiences the loss of his mother-in-law, a more focused email communication that only goes out to the immediate team is most appropriate as opposed to a company-wide, in-person response when a long-term employee passes away.

Informing staff: Let staff know about the death as soon as possible. Inform them face-to-face, either individually or at a meeting. If there are employees in other locations, follow up in-person meetings with an immediate email to the off-site workers. After sending out the message, post a copy on the company bulletin board.

Let staff attend funeral: If the funeral or memorial service is held during work hours, allow staff to attend without fear of financial penalties.

Attend the funeral: Attend the funeral yourself and, depending on the situation, encourage other members of the organization’s leadership team to attend. This sends a clear message the company cares about and respects employees.

Use temporary workers: If necessary and possible, hire temporary workers to fill in during the funeral. It’s really important to allow everybody who cared about the employee to attend the funeral. Hire temporary workers to answer the phones or fill in at the reception desk, if needed. This gives all employees a chance to grieve appropriately, without worrying about their job responsibilities.

Sending condolences: Express the company’s sorrow to the employee’s family. At a minimum, send a personal card and flowers (unless the family has requested no flowers and has asked for a different kind of tribute). Many companies send a financial contribution to a designated charity. Let staff know what kind of gesture has been made in honour of the deceased on their behalf. Or, communicate the family’s wishes regarding flowers or memorial contributions to staff members so they can choose to express their sympathy individually or as a group.

Steps to take after the funeral

Remember that grief in the workplace can be very intense. Think about and plan for how you yourself would handle a wide range of responses, from numbness to tears to emotional outbursts.

Become familiar with the grieving process: You and your staff may have many feelings, including guilt, sadness, anxiety, disbelief, anger or relief someone’s suffering has ended. These feelings can shift from one day to the next and will occur whether the death was expected or not. Remember these feelings are a normal part of the healing process.

Consider employees’ relationships with their co-workers: In general, the closer employees are, or were, to the affected co-worker, the more intensely they may experience emotions about the death. Managers need to keep in mind responses can vary from person to person and other losses may lead to a cumulative reaction.

Find out what resources are available: Most people who have suffered a loss need more support than managers alone can provide. Contact your employee assistance program (EAP) to find out what resources are available so you can provide information quickly when the need arises. Manager consultations can be helpful in the early planning stages and could include arranging for on-site grief counsellors when appropriate. Stay up to date on company policies so you can answer urgent questions about benefits and leaves.

Helping staff grieve involves compassion, flexibility

Feelings of grief don’t end with a funeral. In the days, weeks or even months after the death of a co-worker, a manager can help a team adjust to this new situation.

Let people know you share their sense of loss: Acting as though nothing has changed could make it appear you didn’t care about the person who died or could keep staff members from dealing with their loss.

Watch for symptoms of grief: After a death, employees may make more mistakes, become irritable or have trouble sleeping, eating or concentrating. These symptoms usually pass as the grief becomes less acute, but be prepared to suggest helpful resources to employees who seem to be having more trouble coping than others.

Remember that healing takes a long time: A manager’s first instinct is often to try to fix a difficult or painful situation, but there are no quick fixes to grief. It may take employees weeks or even months to adjust fully to the loss of a co-worker.

Realize the death may affect how a team performs: Keep expectations realistic –– you may see a lower level of productivity or motivation for a while –– but don’t assume the worst. A death or serious illness often leads to individuals pulling together as a team and can give everyone a new awareness of how much they value their job and each other.

Offer specialized support: Employees may require specialized support if the death occurred in the workplace or had a level of trauma associated with it, such as an accident. In addition to having the usual feelings of grief and sorrow, employees could face additional emotional burdens. They might have witnessed a heart attack or feel guilty they couldn’t have prevented the death. Give them the extra support they need to continue to function smoothly. Spend more time listening to them. Suggest resources that can help them cope with their private grief. Consider bringing in a counsellor to work with the staff as a group.

Try to ease the transition when you replace the person who died: Co-workers may have trouble adjusting to the replacement of a well-loved or prominent employee. The new person may experience coldness, resentment or indifference. Let the new person know it may take time for people to adjust. You may find it helpful to rearrange the furniture or make other changes in the office of the person who died. These small changes can make it easier for staff to adjust to the presence of a new employee.

Grief always poses a challenge for managers. Every death is unique, and there are no easy solutions. Listening to staff –– and acknowledging their loss –– will help you respond in the best way for employees and the organization.

Estelle Morrison is director of health management at Ceridian Canada, an EAP and HR solutions provider. She can be reached at estelle_morrison@ceridian.ca.

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