Helping Employees Recover From the Death of a Coworker
Imagine this scenario. You come into work and walk through the office. You notice that Robin, a fixture in the company for 25 years, is not at her desk. As you settle into your workstation, a colleague drops by.
“Did you hear the news about Robin?” the co-worker asks.
“No,” you answer.
“She died in a car accident last night.”
You look at your co-worker in shock. Robin was a good friend and great to work with.
“What happened?” you ask. The co-worker shrugs and shakes his head.
“I am not sure. Different rumors are floating around.”
You ask around the office, but no one seems to have any details about the accident, information about Robin’s family, or the time of the funeral.
Later that day, you see that the co-worker’s desk has already been cleared and another person sitting there. You feel angry and violated. You struggle over the next few days with overwhelming feelings of grief. Your ability to concentrate and get things done is negatively affected. You are unaware of who else in the office could support you through the loss or mental health resources that could help you through loss.
This scenario plays out in many workplaces. Staff are left to cope as best they can without support from managers or other co-workers. There are, however, things that management and human resources departments can do to ensure that the physical and mental health needs of employees are met after traumatic events. Loss is a part of life, but the unexpected death of a co-worker is still a shock.
During this time, management should show caring and compassion for employees that may be in distress and offer support and guidance from human resources professionals, if available.
How Managers Can Respond to the Needs of Employees
- have open communication with employees
- check in and offer help when performance suffers
- Be sensitive to the person’s needs and not make assumptions about the staff’s relationship with the deceased
- Employees should know who else in the workplace had experienced grief or someone they can talk to
- Employees may need a special place they can go for a timeout and someone to go with them if needed A list of professionals who are trained to deal with grief should be available
- Determine when staff need breaks, time off, or relief staff to cover their shifts
- Be patient as employees may have grief bursts at first, be more emotional, and miss their colleague
- Watch for signs of negative behavior such as a lack of concentration, substance abuse, or anger, and offer support and help
- Employees may want to reach out to the family of the deceased and need information
- Arrange for grief counselling sessions onsite if needed and relief staff who can cover for this time
First Steps to Take
Management needs to have a meeting and set up some strategies to help employees cope. In some organizations, human resources have policies and guidelines in place. Here are some ways that administrators can help employees.
Recognize worker feelings and behaviors
Common feelings and behaviors among work colleagues after the death of a co-worker:
- Denial, disbelief, shock
- Feel unprepared for the situation
- Bursts of emotion when employees think of the person feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks
- Experiences deep sadness
- Feel helpless because the employees cannot change what has happened
- An emotional roller coaster with bursts of anxiety along the way
- Guilt over things left undone or unsaid
- Concentration is off because their minds keep focusing on their memories of the person
- May copy the deceased's behavior
- Change sleep and eating habits
- May talk to others or withdraw
- May be drawn to people who knew the deceased and want to reach out to the family
- Feel physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, rapid heartbeat, irritability, or body aches and pains
Notification of the death
All the staff who are affected by the tragedy should be contacted as soon as possible after the death. Co-workers and managers of the deceased person should be notified face to face, if possible.
If the death occurred over a weekend, managers should contact the workers and let them know what happened. This action could help the employees face the challenges of coming into work on Monday morning. If the notification occurs during the week, managers should make sure that the affected workers get home safely that day.
Provide accurate information
Management should have accurate information to share with employees about what happened and let them know about funeral arrangements. Without correct information, rumors and misinformation could spread.
Give time off, if needed
Some employees deeply affected by the death may need some time off to recover from what happened. Employers should set a return-to-work date if the employee needs a few days off.
The workplace may need temporary staff to be brought in to cover the position. At this time, co-workers and bosses should reach out to the individual to keep them connected to work.
Inviting the employee to drop in for a cup of coffee at the workplace can be a safe and effective step to reintegrate them back into the work environment.
Some employees may request accommodations such as different hours or the ability to work from home. A time limit is recommended because these changes could be a way that the worker is avoiding a specific circumstance or situation at work.
Keep the person's workstation intact
The deceased person's workstation should not be cleared right away, if possible. There may be some cases where another employee must take over the place, such as a receptionist station or an order desk. Otherwise, it is best to leave the station as it is for a few days. If things are put away too quickly, co-workers may feel angry or resentful, possibly because they may feel that managers are trivializing or dismissing their loss.
Employees can put up pictures, place flowers, or write their feelings about the deceased in a memorial book at the deceased’s work station or in a public area of the office. A photo of the person who past can also be placed in the lunchroom.
Everyone grieves differently. Some people rebound quickly while others need a longer time to recover. Their closeness to the deceased should be taken into consideration when decisions are made about work modification or time off. Most employees recover within a day to two weeks. People could be triggered to think about the deceased person at any point.
Employers are not responsible for making the employee feel better but these steps can help workers to recover from the trauma of losing a co-worker more quickly and lessen the impact on their job performance.
When administrators take the special needs of grieving employees into account, these measures benefit the workplace overall.
Employees will be more productive, less likely to interrupt the flow of work with absences or emotional outbursts, and will be more focused on their work.
Webinar, Trauma in the Workplace, CMHA, Oakville Library
Supporting an employee through trauma, Benefits Canada
How Managers Can Help Staff Cope with a Traumatic Incident or Event, Penn Behavioral Health Corporate Services
A prompt response plan for trauma in the workplace, The Counseling Team International
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2015 Carola Finch