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Supporting Employees After the Death of a Coworker

No matter the circumstances, the death of an employee will come as a shock. As those who knew or worked with the deceased grieve and process the loss, they’ll need empathy, understanding, and support from leadership.

You also have to keep operations going at a time when your people feel overburdened with emotional work and aren’t necessarily able to perform to their usual standards. Below we examine what you can expect from your employees following the loss of a coworker, how to notify them about the death, how to give them time to process their feelings, and how to keep the work going.

What to Expect

Grief and healing won’t look the same for everyone. Some members of your team might process their grief quickly, while others take longer. Some might share their feelings, while others keep their emotions to themselves. Some might dive into and disappear in their work, while others will find themselves unable to be productive for long stretches. There’s no right or wrong here, but you can expect people to respond with sadness, anger, confusion, frustration, and even humor. You can also expect them to be physically and emotionally exhausted, make more mistakes, forget important information, and fall behind. Give them as much grace as you can. 

Notifying Employees

Informing employees about the loss of their coworker will take planning, tact, and care. You’re setting the tone for the days and weeks to follow. Your employees will need to feel that you understand and share their shock and grief, and that you’re willing and able to be patient with them as they process the news. An email or company-wide message might be appropriate for coworkers who didn’t know the deceased, but it would feel cold and impersonal to employees who knew the person well. For the latter, sharing the news in person or in a call would be best. Depending on the circumstances and wishes of the deceased employee’s family, you may not be able to share a lot of details or answer every question posed to you. It’s okay to tell employees you don’t have all the answers or that you’re not authorized to share certain information. They’ll understand.

Time and Resources to Grieve

Closing for the day or allowing an entire team to take an unscheduled day off may not be feasible, but give employees as much time as you can to sit with the news and process the loss. Those closest to the deceased are likely to be distracted and unable to focus over the next few days. Additional short breaks during the day may be helpful. If you offer bereavement leave but it’s limited to family, consider expanding its use in this situation. Make every effort to allow employees to attend the funeral or memorial service and take time off as needed. If you have an employee assistance plan (EAP) or mental health coverage, share that information with your employees and encourage them to use it as needed. You might also consider bringing in a grief counselor to talk with affected employees and prepare managers for what to expect short and long term. Grief is personal. Not everyone will react in the way you think they might.

Getting the Work Done

At the end of the day, the work the deceased employee was doing still needs to get done. At the same time, reassigning their tasks and filling their role will need to be done delicately. Be open with your employees about what needs to happen, give them space to share their feelings and provide input, and keep them in the loop. It will likely be hard for some of them to be asked to take on the deceased employee’s job duties and could be triggering to see the position appear in a job posting. Being respectful of their feelings throughout this process will go a long way.

Painful Reminders and PTSD

If the death occurred in the workplace or was witnessed by your employees, they may unexpectedly re-experience the horror, panic, stress, and fear they felt at the time of the event. In some cases, an employee may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. If any of this occurs—and it can, even years later—give affected employees time and space to process their emotions. Also, don’t be hard on yourself if something you say triggers a response you didn’t intend. You may find yourself talking about a musical you enjoy that reminds someone of the employee who died. There’s no way to anticipate or avoid every trigger. If you’re showing kindness and compassion throughout this whole process, your employees will understand when you inadvertently say the “wrong thing.” Be kind and compassionate to yourself. You’re suffering too.

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