The death of a colleague can be a difficult experience for their coworkers.
We often know exactly what is expected of us when a family member or close friend passes away, but the same rules may not apply in a work situation. Employees may feel confused or unsure about how to act when a colleague dies.
Should we pause our work, or push through with business as usual? Is it okay to take time off? Who will take over the deceased’s work responsibilities?
As an employer, you and your management team will need to answer these and any other questions that your staff may have.
1. Communicate with your staff
Depending on the situation, you may be responsible for informing staff of their colleague’s passing. This may be at the request of their family, or out of necessity if the death occurred in the workplace.
It is important to be sensitive to how this news is shared. Those who were close to the employee, whether they were friends or part of the same team, may need to be informed privately first.
Providing them with some time to process their emotions before a larger announcement is made can help avoid embarrassment or unnecessary shock.
You may also need to discuss how the deceased’s work will be managed with key employees. Allowing people time to grieve is important, but there may be time-sensitive tasks that will need to be followed up in the coming days or weeks.
Develop a plan for the handover, including communicating with stakeholders outside the business who may need to be informed of your employee’s passing.
2. Provide support to employees
Helping staff through this difficult time can help them manage their grief in the long term. It can also help build unity throughout the company and minimize the inevitable decrease in office productivity.
Providing emotional support for staff may include distributing contact information for grief counselors, or bringing a professional into the office for one-on-one or group meetings.
It is important to realize that everyone will want to grieve differently.
So, providing private options can be helpful. Managers and HR representatives may also want to make themselves available to answer questions or listen to staff concerns.
It is also thoughtful to reach out to the employee’s family. A card from the organization or a flower arrangement for the memorial service may be appreciated.
Colleagues who were friendly with the deceased may want to organize meals for the family or a donation in their name to a charity. If appropriate, the company may offer to pay for supplies or match employee contributions.
3. Encourage staff to reflect on their feelings
A co-worker’s death can be a confusing experience. It may take some people longer than others to cope with the loss.
Providing support is vital, but it is also important that employees understand that a range of emotions is normal when grieving. Staff may be feeling sadness or anger.
If the death occurred at work, they may feel anxious or experience survivor guilt. They may also feel regret if their last interaction with the deceased was unpleasant.
Encouraging staff to reflect on their emotions and why they are feeling them can be the first steps towards helping them to manage their grief. The death of a coworker can also spark thoughts about your own mortality.
Some employees may start thinking about their own death, how their family would get by, the impact it would have on colleagues, or even what their funeral might look like.
Again, these are all normal thoughts. But if an employee finds it overly difficult to focus on work because of them, they may want to seek the help of a professional grief counselor.
4. Memorialize the loss
It may not be possible or appropriate for every member of your staff to attend the funeral.
For those unable to make it, organizing an opportunity for the office to pay their respects could help colleagues gain closure.
Memorializing an employee after they’ve passed can take many forms. Holding a few moments of silence or arranging a dinner where staff can share stories and memories may be plenty.
Colleagues might also appreciate something more tangible such as planting a remembrance tree or hanging a small plaque in the office.
If the employee passed away due to a disease or illness, fundraising, or volunteering for an associated charity is a thoughtful way for colleagues to channel their grief into action.
5. Start to move on
Carrying on with business, as usual, is tricky, but necessary for the organization and everyone’s mental health. Making the necessary changes will require sensitivity and thoughtful consideration.
If there are any work-related tasks that still need to be delegated, entrust these to team members who can handle it and start looking for a permanent replacement.
It may be best to seat the new employee somewhere other than the former employee’s workspace, at least for the first few months.
Ask a trusted member of staff to pack up their desk items, and return personal belongings to their family. It is okay for colleagues to take their time cleaning the desk or office.
A gradual change may be easier to deal with than suddenly finding an empty workspace.
Keep in mind how technology can unexpectedly reopen wounds, too. Update voice mail recordings and the company website, as needed.
Forward emails to their manager or another employee who is prepared to reply. Finally, ask IT to remove the deceased’s log-in and security privileges.
Dealing with the passing of an employee is something no one wants to experience.
Managing people’s emotions and the business can be tricky but must be done. Review your company’s policies and procedures to make sure you’re prepared, just in case.
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