Carola is an entrepreneur and freelance writer. She has worked in the business world as administrative support for many years.
When employees pass away, Human Resources and managers are often unsure how to move forward. They face numerous challenges such as those in the following scenario.
What May Happen When a Coworker Dies
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 coworker asks.
“No,” you answer.
“She died in a car accident last night.”
You look at your coworker in shock. Robin was a good friend and great to work with.
“What happened?” you ask. The coworker 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 coworker’s desk has already been cleared, and another person is 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 or mental health resources that could help you through loss.
Tips to Help Employees Deal with the Loss of a Coworker
The above scenario plays out in many workplaces. Staff are left to cope as best they can without support from managers or other coworkers. There are, however, things that management and human resources departments can do to ensure that employees' physical and mental health needs are met after traumatic events.
Arrange a Meeting for Managers, HR, And Senior Employees
Management needs to have a meeting and set up some strategies to help employees cope and deal with issues that may occur. In some organizations, human resources have policies and guidelines in place.
Ensure Information Is Accurate Before Sharing It
Management should have accurate information about the deceased to share with employees and let them know about funeral arrangements. Without correct information, rumors and misinformation could spread.
Notify Staff of the Death as Soon as Possible
All the staff affected by the tragedy should be contacted as soon as possible after the death. Coworkers and managers of the deceased person should be notified face to face, if possible.
If the death occurred over a weekend, managers should contact workers and tell them 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 ensure that the affected workers get home safely that day.
Keep the Person's Workstation Intact for a Few Days
If possible, the deceased person's workstation should not be cleared immediately. There may be cases where another employee must take over the space, such as at 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, coworkers may feel angry or resentful 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 workstation or in a public area of the office. A photo of the person who passed can also be placed in the lunchroom.
Offer Mental Health Support
During this time, management and HR should show caring and compassion for employees that may be in distress and offer support and guidance if workers need to talk. Grief counseling sessions onsite should be provided if needed and relief staff who can cover for employees at this time.
Recognize Worker Feelings and Behaviors
Everyone grieves differently. Some people rebound quickly, while others need a longer time to recover. Their closeness to the deceased should be considered when making decisions 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.
Designate a special place where employees can go for a timeout and someone accompany them if needed. A list of trained professionals to deal with grief should be available.
Common feelings and behaviors among work colleagues after the death of a coworker:
- Denial, disbelief, shock
- Feeling unprepared for the situation
- Bursts of emotion when employees think of the deceased person
- Deep sadness and feeling of helplessness 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
- Changes in sleep and eating habits
- Changes in sociability; may see an increased need to talk or signs of withdrawal
- Physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, rapid heartbeat, irritability, or body aches and pains
Grieving can have a negative impact on a worker's performance such as:
- Feeling overwhelmed by everyday tasks
- Poor concentration because their minds keep focusing on their memories of the person
- bursts of anger
- substance abuse
Offer Help and Support
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.
Some employees who are 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. 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.
The workplace may need temporary staff to be brought in to cover the position. At this time, coworkers and bosses should reach out to the individual to keep them connected to work.
Here are some other ways to assist people who are grieving:
- Have open communication.
- Check-in and offer help when performance suffers.
- Be sensitive to the person’s needs, and do not make assumptions about the staff’s relationship with the deceased.
- Determine when staff require breaks or time off
- Be patient with employees who may have grief bursts at first and be more emotional while missing their colleague.
- Be aware that employees may want to reach out to the family of the deceased and need contact information.
- Designate a special place where employees can go for a timeout and someone accompany them if needed.
Employers are not responsible for making the employee feel better, but these steps can help workers to recover from the trauma of losing a coworker more quickly and lessen the impact on their job performance.
When administrators consider the special needs of grieving employees, 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.
Grief in the Workplace, Psycom, Kathleen Smith, PhD, LPC
Coping with the death of a co-worker, American Psychological Association
Working Through the Death of a Colleague, Harvard Business Review, Arielle Dance
"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
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 28, 2015:
Thank you for your comments. A lot of the information came from an excellent webinar from people who went through this experience with someone who had worked in the workplace for over 25 years.
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 28, 2015:
This was a respectful, well-conceived hub about an important topic. Especially because we spend so much time in the workplace, the relationships we forge there can be much more than just business.
Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on April 24, 2015:
Thank you for a well-written, sensitive hub. We often spend more waking hours with our co-workers than with family members, and they become in a way a 2nd family.