Losing those we care about is never easy, but it can be especially challenging when a work colleague passes away. This situation may mix work and emotions in a way that some people are uncomfortable with. Others may feel confused or unsure of how to react.
How a company responds to an employee’s death is important. Poor handling of the situation could further impact staff morale and productivity, and may even affect loyalty to the company in the long term.
Communication is key
Depending on the circumstances, the company may need to inform staff when an employee dies. This might especially be the case if the death occurred in the workplace or while he or she was working. However, an announcement may also be appropriate if a staff member passes away suddenly, was a long-term employee or particularly beloved.
Regardless of why an announce is made, it should be done with care and sensitivity. Close friends, the employee’s manager or anyone who reported to them may need to be informed privately first. This will give them time to process their feelings before the wider announcement is made.
Provide staff with support
Having the support of their employer can go a long way towards helping staff handle grief in a healthy way. Members of the HR team and managers should be available to answer any questions or concerns, whether these are business related or more personal.
There might also be a need to bring in outside help. Grief counselors could help provide emotional support or coping strategies to bereaved colleagues. This can be done in the office during work hours, or offsite at times that are more convenient for staff and business needs.
It’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently. Staff may be experiencing many emotions—sadness, anger, confusion. They might even think about their own mortality, considering things like their own funeral wishes or worrying about their family’s future well being. Giving employees access to different support options could help them work through these feelings, care for their own mental health and impact staff morale as little as possible.
Remembering a colleague
Once the initial shock of losing a member of staff has subsided, the business may want to honor the deceased in a meaningful way. This might include short term gestures, like sending a card to their family or ordering a flower arrangement for the funeral service. Someone representing the company might attend the funeral as well.
Employees may also be moved to do more. Those especially close to the deceased could organise meals for the family during the mourning period. Donations could also be made to the family or to a favorite charity, with the business matching employee contributions.
Staff might also appreciate a more permanent reminder of their beloved colleague. A small plaque could be hung somewhere in the office as a tribute. The business could also sponsor a memorial bench or plant a tree in a local park. Employees might also enjoy taking part in a fun run, raising money for a good cause in their colleague’s name.
Addressing business needs
The well being of your staff is important, but so are the needs of the business. Finding the right balance between the two can be tricky. However, finding the right people to assist with the transition could make a big difference.
There may be time-sensitive tasks that need to be addressed. Identify a trusted team member to take over these business needs in the short-term—someone who understands the urgency and is OK with the increased workload during this difficult time. Once the most important tasks are delegated, key employees can develop a more complete handover plan.
Someone may also need to let people outside of the business know what’s happened. Contact relevant stakeholders, professional organisations and anyone else that the deceased worked closely with. This process may take days, weeks or possibly longer. The person responsible for breaking the sad news to others should be comfortable having these difficult conversations for some time.
It may be hard to imagine the workplace without your trusted colleague there. This will hopefully get easier as time passes, but there are practical changes that will need to happen.
Your employee may have left personal items in their work space. Ask a trusted staff member or someone close to the deceased to pack these up so they can be returned to the family. It may be nicer to do this gradually, so other staff aren’t shocked to find a suddenly empty desk in the morning.
Unexpectedly hearing the voice or seeing a photo of someone who’s died can reopen old wounds. It may be necessary to update voicemail recordings and the company website to help avoid this pain. From a security standpoint, the deceased’s security clearances and login credentials should be removed to prevent fraud or breaches.
Finally, it’s likely that this employee will need to be replaced in the future. It may be less painful for their colleagues to seat the new team member at a different desk, if possible. It might even be a good idea to rearrange the entire office layout, so no one must sit in the same spot where the deceased once did.
Dealing with death in a healthy way
The death of an employee can take a toll on both management and staff. Having a plan in place for dealing with these unfortunate scenarios could help everything go as smoothly as possible, given the circumstances. Your employees are one of your most important resources. Taking care of their mental health and well being could help everyone get back to business as usual, as soon as possible.