Wouldn’t life be great if no one died? Or no one grieved? The fact is that at some point, both of these situations will occur in one’s personal and workplace life; and while we cannot prevent it from occurring, we can help ease the impact on the workplace. We can educate the workforce on how to deal with the death of a co-worker or how to support an employee who is returning to work following a bereavement leave. No matter what the situation is around the death, whether it was an illness, a sudden death, homicide or suicide, the impact on business will be similar.
Grief has no time limits, and the journey toward acceptance will vary depending on the situation and who is grieving. No two individuals will react in the same way. We must really understand what grief is in order to understand its impact on people. And, most importantly, we need to understand grieving people in order to support their needs.
Death and grief have a powerful impact on individuals and their abilities to balance logical and emotional thoughts and actions. Unfortunately, when grief enters the workplace, business must continue as usual but with a saddened morale. As we struggle toward stability, the needs of both employees and clients weigh in the balance on any given day. This is not a matter of who is more important, but rather how you can be available for both groups.
The first step is to recognize the reality of the death. Whether the death was that of an employee or an employee’s loved one, it is important for the employer and co-workers to acknowledge it. A few examples include sending the family a bereavement gift, card or meal, offering a friendly gesture, attending the funeral, or making a donation to a worthwhile cause—this can be a college fund for a family or a donation to your favorite charity. By starting there, you are acknowledging the death and showing the family you care. Having a grief counselor available for the work group also can help with the recovery process. Educating people on how to handle grief is extremely important, as many people who have never experienced grief may not know that what they are feeling is normal. The first few days are centered on numbness but as that wears off, the remaining days and weeks can be intense if you don’t know what to expect. A grief counselor can educate the group so they are more self-aware.
The second major step is to assess the impact on the business and how the disruption can be minimized without appearing to be insensitive. If the death was of an employee’s loved one, the employee may be absent from work for a period of time. Because we live in a mobile society and many times people need to travel some distance to the funeral, the leave is often extended. In addition, the tasks after a death can be numerous and may also necessitate an extended leave. For example, an employee may need to return to the home of the deceased to prepare it for sale. This takes time and usually does not occur during the traditional bereavement leave.
Once the current workload has been assessed, the next major step is to develop a plan to maintain “business as usual.” In some cases, the work group will need to divide-and-conquer the tasks that need to be accomplished until the grieving employee returns to work. This would be a short-term fix and would not necessarily work for all business types. In addition, the ability to cover for the grieving employee will also depend on the length of the leave.
In the case when an employee has died, the position will typically be backfilled. However, in the short term, a temporary hire may support the most immediate needs. This temporary hire will need to have the strength to deal with an emotional workgroup, who may not be friendly and supportive at first. With the right temperament, the work group can truly be helped to return to some type of normalcy and be able to support clients and customers more consistently.
If a co-worker has died and the impact on the work group is so substantial that replacing the employee creates hardship, rearranging how the work group performs specific tasks can be a solution. This will reduce the void created by the death. The new process can be a simple as rearranging the workspace to alleviate the feeling of emptiness, or changing the process of how the work is accomplished by rearranging steps or having people perform different jobs. Although these measures might be perceived at first as extreme, the goal is to get the workgroup productive again without minimizing the need to grieve the loss.
It may appear at times that the work group has emotional setbacks resulting in low morale – this is normal as the employees are experiencing issues that are difficult to handle while trying to maintain a professional image. Death often changes relationships in a work setting because the co-workers are often experiencing emotional swings that are awkward to share in public. Allowing employees to “work through” the emotional swings will truly help in the recovery process. This can be done by giving them the permission to be sad and encouraging them to ask for help of their co-workers. It will take the entire team’s commitment to each other to help keep clients happy and maintain “business as usual.”
Updated: August 3, 2015