Dealing with Death &
Grief in the Workplace
Part 2: Management
See Part 1
for Guidelines for Employees
- 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
Helping the bereaved worker
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.
Supporting the Workplace:
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.
Guidelines for Managers
Managers and supervisors must assure that the
work responsibilities are being met and at the same time their employees
feel supported and valued. Balancing these two needs become more challenging
when employees have been impacted by personal and/or job loss, accident,
or serious or lengthy illness.
Management may have little to no experience in
knowing what to do following a death, illness, or work-related death of
an employee, especially in dealing with grieving families and employees.
Make sure the employees are informed about whatever
public facts surrounding the loss or death are known including: what happened,
plans for funeral or memorials, family wishes, etc. Providing factual information
will help suppress any rumors regarding the death or event.
It is also helpful to let employees know of resources
and grief counselors that can help cope during the stressful times. If
possible, employer-provided professional grief counselors should be made
available. Counselors specializing in grief can support employees and management
with their grief and help restore order in the workplace.
In addition, employees, drawing on their friendships,
can support and share with each other. They should be encourage invited
to participate in expressions of condolences to families and loved ones.
It may be helpful for someone who knows the family well to be the contact
person in the workplace. This person can talk to the family about what
they want, and how best to achieve it, while also considering the needs
of the company and its workforce. For families dealing with the death of
a loved one in the workplace, the deceased's employer and the claims agent
need to be contacted to help in managing the death claim.
Sudden deaths—accident, homicide, suicide, heart
attack, overdose—can cause employees to be in a state of shock and disbelief,
asking questions such as "what" and "why" it happened. These deaths need
to be discussed openly to clarify facts, dispel rumors, and allow grieving
to begin. In the case of sudden death it may be helpful to utilize professional
grief counseling to facilitate employee meetings.
It is helpful for companies to have a plan in
place to assist in responding effectively to a workplace death. Included
in this plan should be the use of critical incident stress debriefing for
those employees who were directly or indirectly impacted by the death.
Employees and managers should know and be prepared for investigation of
deaths in the workplace by workplace insurance agents and the Coroner.
Following the death of an employee, the remaining
staff members must take on the additional workload. This may cause employees
to feel as though a tornado has touched down in the middle of the operation
creating chaos. Managers and supervisors need to determine, divide and
distribute the workload. It is also important to thank the employees and
acknowledge the strain on the co-workers who are taking on additional workloads
while coping with their own feelings of loss and grief.
If the grief impacts many staff members and disrupts
normal operations, it may be necessary to arrange for coverage or back-up
services to help keep the company or organization running.
Regardless of the cause of death, it is helpful
if the management:
Ways Management can Helping the Grieving Employee
Sends a clear, simple message of support to the grieving
person and to other staff to help them cope with the event.
Maintain an "open door policy" to their staff.
Provide for a qualified counseling service.
Helping Other Employees
Establish contact with the grieving employee(s) as
soon as possible.
Ask about specific things you might do to help: Do
they want any information shared with others? Do they need time off? Do
they need an adjustment in their work schedule? Do they need help with
Not knowing what to say and feeling awkward is normal.
It is important to acknowledge the grieving employee’s loss and grief.
Handle the situation in a sensitive, straight forward
Ensure time off for the bereaved employee and any
closely affiliated associates to attend the funeral. This gives the employee
a chance to say goodbye to their loved one without guilt.
Intermittent tears and sadness are normal.
Respect confidentiality of personal or medical information
unless permission has been given to share it with others. Be sure to find
out what can be shared and what is confidential.
Be patient, compassionate and most of all, available
to listen. Anticipate that an employee will need to talk about the loss
many times, especially during special dates.
Don't expect that the grieving person will "snap
out of it" or expect their grief will resolve quickly.
It is important to create an accepting environment
where grieving is seen as a normal process that occurs over time, but during
which work can still progress.
Expect the best from grieving employees, however
accept less than the best for a time.
As tasks are re-distributed, be sure to thank the
employees dealing with the additional work for their efforts.
If an individual is not coping well, showing signs
of depression or their grieving response is beyond the range of emotions
seen in others, seek consultation or refer for counseling.
Other employees may need to be helped in dealing
with the death of an employee. Some suggestions:
Organizing activities in remembrance of the dead
Encouraging thoughtful gestures of sympathy.
Ensuring bereaved employees have time off to attend
the funeral. Friends of the employee should have the chance to say goodbye.
Holding a special ceremony at the workplace.
Taking up a collection, establishing a memorial fund
for the family.
Planting a tree onsite or elsewhere.
Publishing a tribute in the newspaper or company
See Part 1 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.
| A Healing Place
| Loss & Grief
| Emergency Pick-Me-Ups
| Condolence & Sympathy
| Transitional Medicine
| Butterflies & Blazes
About this Site