Dealing with Death &
Grief in the Workplace
Part 1: Employees
See Part 2
for Guidelines for Management
- Grief & Loss in the Workplace
These days, most people spend more of their waking
hours at the workplace than at home. People who work together may become
close like an extended family. Therefore when a colleague dies or one is
grieving a death or a loss, the impact on his/her co-workers can be tremendous
and can influence the workplace in a variety of ways. Productivity can
be compromised and the dynamics of the workplace can change. When the death
is unexpected, in a violent act or an accident, the grief response can
be quite traumatic for the survivors, further impacting work.
Grief and loss occurs both at work and home, but
these two realms can be difficult to separate. Serious illness and death
in the family commonly affect a person’s workplace performance. Typically,
the grief response results from a personal crisis—divorce, fire, work-
related or auto accident; sudden death—heart attack, stroke, suicide, accident,
homicide; chronic or terminal health problems, or job termination—layoff,
Each person’s experience of loss and each grief
response is unique. However there are some common feelings and symptoms
often experienced by the grieving. These include: sadness, betrayal, anxiety,
fear, mistrust, irritability, guilt, anger, tension, depression, and loss
of confidence. Grieving people often develop physical symptoms such as
abdominal pain, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, changes in appetite, increased
drug or alcohol use, restlessness, absentmindedness, and poor concentration.
These emotions and symptoms of grief response can significantly impact
a person’s ability to function.
Thus, grief can upset workers and hamper the work
environment. Unfortunately, most businesses cannot afford to halt production,
sales or services to accommodate the grief response. Instead they continue
on in the mode of "business as usual."
When an employee experiences a loss or an illness
their ability to deal with the grieving process can become even more prolonged
if the person does not feel aided by his/her manager, supervisor or employer.
Those who feel cared for and supported are more likely to have improved
Death in the Workplace
People go to work expecting things to be business
as usual. At the end of the day, they go home to their families. The last
thing anyone expects is for a co-worker to die in the workplace, either
from natural causes, or as a result of a tragic event.
When a death occurs in the workplace, the normally
orderly environment can quickly turn to one of chaos. If the death occurred
as a result of an industrial incident, fire, murder, or similar tragic
incident, workers have to deal with additional concerns in addition to
the shock, the death of a coworker and the loss of safety in the work environment.
Workers and management may be concerned about how and why the incident
occurred and what sort of steps are being taken to ensure that another
accident will not happen and/or the security is being increased to protect
them from future acts of violence. Death in the workplace may result in
feelings of anger, guilt, unease, fears for personal safety plus the pervasive
need for someone or something to blame.
Workers who witness a fatal accident should consult
with their employer to determine what arrangements the employer may have
in place for conducting an immediate critical incident debriefing or short-term
After a death in the workplace, some families
who have lost loved ones at work, may wish to see the site of the death
or offer thanks to co-workers who helped their loved one. Similarly, having
direct contact with the family may be helpful for some workers. Others
may avoid contact with their co-workers family due to the painful memories
it may cause. In addition the family will likely appreciate the management
contact them promptly. Management should also be available to answer any
questions, or to give help to the family, particularly in the early days
following the death.
Coping in the Workplace
with Significant Loss
Management and co-workers may not appreciate
the hardship that grief can cause, particularly in the workplace. The grieving
worker may find it helpful to send a letter to their workplace informing
their supervisors of the loss and allowing them to pass the information
on to colleagues. In doing this the bereaved can let people know what is
happening and avoid having to tell and retell the story of their loss over
and over again everyone in the office.
A death of a family member or close relative occurs
and workers are given a few days to two week off at the most for "bereavement
leave" to deal with the immediate issues surrounding the funeral. This
may not be sufficient time to make funeral arrangements or for the bereaved
person to begin to process the grief. The worker is expected to return
to work with the grief still fresh. There is also the implicit, societal
expectation that after two weeks one should be "over it" and back to normal.
In contrast, another major loss occurs such as
the diagnosis of a major medical condition, the breakup of a long-standing
relationship, the death of a friend, or the loss of a cherished pet, but
these losses do not meet the criteria for bereavement leave. Thus no time
(other than "personal days") is available to take off. People are expected
to show up keep functioning—business as usual. There is no time to grieve.
What To Do if You Suffer a Significant Loss:
People respond to loss differently. Some find it
very difficult to return to work, whereas others find it helpful to keep
busy; their work diverts them away from grieving, sadness and mourning.
For other workers, simply getting back to standard routines and avoiding
any special activities or remembrances related to the loss or death, may
be the best way of putting the event behind them.
Accept that grief is a normal response to loss and
healing takes time.
Anticipate that there will be time when the grief
recurs and you may be overcome with the intense emotions anew. Be cognizant
of special dates—holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays.
Realize that not everyone is comfortable dealing
with grief. Friends and loved ones may not be able to handle your grief
Search out supportive people who will listen to your
story of grief.
Find other creative ways of coping with the loss.
Share your feelings with friends and family.
Ask about the company’s policy on bereavement leave
and ask for additional leave if needed.
If necessary, talk with your supervisor or manager
about how much time to take off, or a arrange for a temporary adjustment
in work hours or work load. Negotiate flexible hours if needed.
Prioritizing tasks can ensure the most important
jobs will get done.
Benefits of returning to work
Difficulties of returning to work
Enables the person to return to a known safe environment
surrounded by friendly colleagues.
Encourages the person to resume a regular daily routine
again, one of the recommendations for coping with grief.
Takes the mind off the loss and enables the worker
to feel normal for a while.
Finishing work related tasks, completing work projects
may help the bereaved to feel they are still contributing something as
part of a team, thus increase their confidence and raise their self esteem.
For some people returning to the workplace is
an overwhelming burden on them in addition to their grief. They may need
extra time off. Once back at work, some workers experience reduced work
performance caused by:
Lack of concentration and memory
Tiredness from emotion and sleepless nights
Feelings of depression
Reduced patience and short temper
Furthermore, grieving workers may also worry they
have or will develop a reputation for wasting time, taking too much sick
leave, being bad tempered, unreliable, unstable or receiving special treatment.
Grieving workers often worry that they will lose
their job from reduced work performance or because of extra time taken
from work. They may be tempted to resign for fear of failure or to reduce
the dual stressors of work and bereavement following the loss.
Guidelines for Dealing
with Co-workers & Grief
Acknowledge the coworker's grief. Let them know
you recognize the magnitude of their loss. However, rather than worrying
about finding the best words to use, it is much more important to connect
with the grieving person. A sincere expression of sympathy, "I'm sorry
for your loss," will let them know you care.
Many people are uncomfortable with public displays
of emotions. displaying their emotions publicly and may furthermore feel
uncomfortable responding to other’s public emotions especially feelings
of grief. Those who find tears or expressions of strong emotions unsettling
instinctively avoid a grieving coworker; this avoidance makes the coworker
feel even more isolated in their loss. One way of handling the coworker
whom recently experienced a loss is to write a note or send flowers expressing
sympathy rather than sharing the sympathy face-to-face in a conversation
at the office.
It is also important to listen to the grieving
coworker. Listening requires a little more emotional energy, but it can
be very valuable to the bereaved. Each time the person has a chance to
tell the story, the loss becomes more real. In addition he/she gains a
bit more perspective, which ultimately helps to lessen the stress of the
When Co-workers Experience a Personal Loss:
When a Co-worker Is Seriously Ill:
Acknowledge the co-worker’s grief.
Let the co-worker know you empathize with the impact
of their loss.
Expect tears and sadness.
Express sympathy openly and from the heart—whether
in person or in writing.
Expect to listen to the story of the grieving colleague
again and again.
Respect the grieving person’s desire for privacy.
Honor closed doors and silence in conversation.
Offer specific and appropriate assistance—cooking
a meal, caring for children or pets, helping with shopping or other errands.
Remember to include the co-worker in social plans.
Let them decide whether to accept or decline the invitation.
Accept less than their best performance from the
co-worker for a while, but expect a return to the best over time.
When a Co-worker Dies:
Stay in touch. Let them know she/he is still part
of the team.
Designate one person to be the office liaison responsible
for passing along information.
Learn what information can be shared with others
and what should remain confidential.
Help the co-worker with practical concerns. Check
the company’s sick leave and other related policies.
Organize a plan of calls, notes, food deliveries
and other gestures of workplace support that don’t require the sick person
Helping the bereaved worker
Arrange for a company meeting. This gives employees
permission to grieve and share their feelings. Sudden, accidental or violent
deaths may require additional times for people to talk.
Those who were particularly close with the deceased
may need additional support.
If appropriate, choose someone to serve as the family
liaison to organize the company’s expression of sympathy be it flowers,
cards, or donations, etc.
Take the time to grieve. Honor the person who died
in an appropriate way. Some suggestions:
Create a memorial board or book.
Collect money for a charitable donation.
Hold or participate in a fund-raiser.
Create an office memory book for the family.
Share tributes in employee newsletters.
Conduct a workplace-only event for co-workers to
acknowledge their notable relationships with the deceased.
Attend the funeral or memorial service.
Bring in help if you need it. A trained grief counselor
can meet and talk with staff.
Supporting the Workplace:
Immediately acknowledge the death with a note or
flowers sent from management and workers can demonstrate support for the
A workplace representative at the funeral can also
convey the company’s condolence.
Asking how the bereaved worker is doing and then
listening to their response can be helpful.
Providing some flexibility in work hours even time
off can help the worker cope with the combined stressors of work and grief.
Being patient and understanding that the grieving
process takes time and that the worker will not quickly "snap out of it"
will also help.
Let the person grieve in his or her own way. If the
person finds working to be therapeutic, do not lighten the workload. If
the grieving person is slow to move back into work, try to ease his/her
Accept that the grieving person’s moods may be changeable
for some time. It helps to be aware that intense feelings can suddenly
re-emerge which are beyond the person's control.
Expect tears. They are a normal part of the grieving
Avoid being judgmental of however the co-worker grieves.
Some people may become numb and the grieving process is delayed for weeks
or even months after the death.
Respect the co-worker’s privacy, need for solitude
Watch out for other employees. Old memories, feelings
and grief may be triggered as a result of the co-worker’s loss. It may
be necessary to honor the old grief separately from the newly grieving
Be careful in sharing stories of your own losses
unless you're certain the person can tolerate it.
Many times, significant life or work changes
contain elements of loss that can be overwhelming and very devastating.
Events specific to the workplace include downsizing, reduction-in-force,
layoffs, mergers and promotions; these can all potentially produce grief-like
responses as workers adjust to the change. The lives of the survivors and
the victims of work changes will be transformed.
The victims of work changes must cope with social,
interpersonal, and financial adjustments. Those who remain must deal with
changes in supervision and reporting lines, loss of co-workers, additional
or redesigned work, and uncertainty of their role and value to the company.
All of these issues can heighten the sense of loss. Both groups have encountered
changes that will forever change their lives, causing them to go through
transitions. Workers often feel that the change "happened to them," rather
than being their choice or something that was within their control. How
people react frequently depends on the individual, their previous work
and personal experiences along with their history of past losses. Most
worker's reactions to the workplace event will be more about the secondarily
associated losses than about the actual change itself.
Ways of Coping with Downsizing or Restructuring
Acknowledge feelings of anger, betrayal, rejection,
disappointment or loss.
Share these feelings with family, friends, and if
appropriate, fellow co-workers.
Check into specific company policies regarding transfers,
replacements, and rehiring.
If necessary, seek advice from the company’s employment
or human resources departments.
See Part 2 for Guidelines
Grieflink. Grief Reactions Associated
with the Workplace. 1999. Available at: http://www.grieflink.asn.au/workplace.html.
Faculty and Staff Assistance Program,
(FASAP) University of Michigan. Grief and Loss in the Workplace. Available
United Behavioral Health. Grief
in the Workplace. Updated September 26, 2001. Available at: http://www.ubhnet.com/ubh/ubhmain/091101/grief_in_workplace.html.
Hospice Net. When a Co-worker is
Sick or Dying. 1996. Available at: http://www.hospicenet.org/html/co-worker.html.
The National Hospice and Palliative
Care Organization (NHPCO) Coworker Death. 1996. (Brochure) Available as
PDF File at: http://www.nhpco.org/public/articles/CoworkerDies.pdf.
Kodanaz RB. Grief in the Workplace.
(Brochure) Colorado Springs, CO: Bereavement Publishing, Inc. , 1997.
Grief at Work: A Guide for Employees
and Managers. (Brochure) Washington D.C.: American Hospice Foundation,
a colleague dies or one is grieving a death or a loss, the impact on his/her
co-workers can be tremendous and can influence the workplace in a variety
See the Emergency
911 Page for links to immediate resources
if you are feeling helpless,
hopeless, overwhelmingly depressed, or suicidal.
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