The death of someone we know can be a difficult experience for those left behind. It’s commonly accepted that a person’s family and close friends will need time and space to grieve their loss. However, other people who were part of the deceased’s social circle may also need the same understanding.

When we lose a member of the workplace, it can sometimes feel like losing a part of our family. Many of us spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our own families, so if a coworker passes away we may be lost in grief. At times it can feel like time has stopped and nothing will ever be the same again. There may be emptiness and change in our work environment.

How a business handles this difficult time can make a big difference in staff morale.

Acknowledge your staff’s feelings

Your staff may feel any number of emotions upon learning that a coworker has passed away.

If the staff did not know the person was sick, they may feel angry that this information was hidden from them. This feeling is natural, however, often people request that their workmates are not told that they are ill. They may want it to remain confidential. Unfortunately, this can mean that their eventual death may come as a shock to their colleagues. As a manager, you could encourage the individual to confide in a few close coworkers in a sensitive way. However, if the individual does not want people to know, their wishes must be respected.

Others may feel confused, at a loss for what to say or do. They may feel afraid to say anything for fear of upsetting anyone by saying the wrong thing. They may sad, worried or numb. You’re likely to see a whole range of emotions in the days and weeks following a staff member’s death.

Let staff grieve

Acknowledging that all of these feelings are valid responses to death is a good place to start. People must be reminded that it is ok to feel emotions when they grieve, whatever those may be.

Management should also be understanding and allow for time out when a person feels overwhelmed by grief in the workplace. Having said that, sometimes it can help people to carry on with their work. It may provide a focus and distraction, but they should never feel pressured into working if they are not feeling well enough. You may need to allow some flexibility at first until emotions start to settle, as some people may need to take some time off to properly grieve.

Find a way to support everyone

As an organisation, one of the best things you may be able to do is find a way to support everyone as they grieve. This may begin with breaking the sad news in a sensitive way, either addressing people individually and privately or as a group.

If it is deemed appropriate and everyone agrees, it may be a good idea to then meet as a group. Self-care is important, and colleagues can help one another when they notice someone is struggling. In a group situation, people can talk about their feelings and discuss plans for going forward. It may help to bring in a trained grief counselor for a group therapy session and one-on-one meetings.

Come together with a plan

The workplace will likely want to honour their colleague and acknowledge their passing. If appropriate, staff may decide to attend the person’s funeral together. However, it’s okay if some people would rather not attend, particularly if they weren’t that close to the deceased. People might want to take a collection for the family. This could be a great help to them, providing money to help with household bills or funeral expenses (especially if the person who passed away did not have a funeral insurance policy).

Staff may also like to honour their colleague in the workplace. This could be hanging a plaque, planting a tree or commemorating a bench as a lasting reminder in the workplace. If a physical reminder in your business is not appropriate or feasible, staff could instead organize a volunteering day or donate to charity in the deceased’s name.

Many people don’t give much thought to death, but if you own a company or manage staff, you may want to think about how you could better support your workers should an employee pass away. Taking the above suggestions on board or reviewing current company policy may be a good way to help make sure you’re prepared—just in case. A workplace that supports workers through the hardship of losing a friend and colleague is probably one that people will want to continue working at for years to come.


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