Dealing with Grief in the Workplace

One of the most difficult things a leader will have to deal with in the workplace is the death of an employee. Whether the result of ongoing health complications or a tragic accident, a death in the company requires nuanced, careful handling.

In the past month, I have been reminded of life’s fragility on more than one occasion. Our company was shocked and saddened to lose an employee who had worked with us for over 20 years. Although I had only known this gentleman for a year, many of my colleagues had worked with him closely for quite some time.

In a separate incident, one of my team members experienced a family tragedy and came to me to discuss how their grief would impact them at work.

… there is a discomfort that surrounds grief. It makes even the most well-intentioned people unsure of what to say. And so many of the freshly bereaved end up feeling even more alone. — Meghan O’Rourke

In either case — whether the grief is experienced at a company-wide level or is more intimately confined — no amount of training can prepare a leader to assist the team in their mourning. But how you deal with death in the workplace is an incredibly important topic.

Here are some of my suggestions:

Reach out to your team: This is an emotional time for your team. Everyone reacts to grief differently, and unexpected emotions may arise in the workplace. Let your staff know about available support services, and reach out individually to let them know they can come talk to you — especially if you notice a staff member whose mood or behavior has changed drastically.

Be open with information: It’s natural for your team to have questions and concerns about the deceased’s situation, memorial services, and the impact on ongoing work logistics. Be as forthcoming as you can without overstepping the bounds of professionalism to help other employees process their loss.

Encourage connection: The family of the deceased employee may be touched to learn how he or she was remembered in the workplace. You may offer to gather condolence cards and deliver them to the family. Physical gestures, such as cooking meals or making a donation in the memory of the deceased may also be appreciated.

Encourage remembrance: Creating a group response in memory of the deceased can be a meaningful way for your team to process grief. Choose something that allows for different levels of participation and respects your team members’ need to process their emotions differently. Examples might be:

  • Create a memorial bulletin board with photos and other meaningful images.
  • Hold a workplace event such as a luncheon or reception in honor of the deceased employee.
  • Create a memory book filled with sentiments from coworkers to give to family.
  • Hold a fundraiser dedicated to the deceased employee in order to make a charitable donation.

Above all, remind your team that your door is always open, and be sensitive in your approach.

It’s my hope that you may never have to encounter a situation where you need to manage a team through the death of one of their coworkers — but if you do, understand that each loss will be felt as distinctly as the employee who has been lost was unique.

Have you ever dealt with grief in the workplace? What are some of the lessons you learned?