This year – this month, in fact - there have been an extraordinary number of deaths of prominent and popular people: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Ed Stuart and now Terry Wogan. It’s been a very sad time and of course our thoughts are with their families.
While death is always with us, it’s always a shock and one of the most difficult situations an employer may face is managing the aftermath of the death of an employee. The loss of a fellow employee is often very stressful. Employees who worked closely with the deceased may feel they've lost a member of their extended family. Even employees who did not know or did not get on well with the employee may feel upset.
Counselling can reduce the impact of a colleague’s death. If you provide an employee assistance programme make sure that your employees are made aware that they have this opportunity if they wish to take it up.
There is no way of knowing how you will find out about the death of an employee. You may learn about it from the deceased’s family, but sometimes the news will come from another employee. No matter how you hear of the death, respond quickly by notifying immediate staff and close work friends directly, and the rest of the company by email. Remember to contact staff who are ill or on leave.
Allow your staff to attend the funeral or memorial service if they would like to do so. You may need to bring someone in to answer phones for a few hours so that everyone can attend. Attending the memorial service is an important part of the grieving process.
The relationship the deceased employee had with colleagues will often determine how the workplace decides to remember him. Examples of work group responses include: creating a memorial bulletin board with photos and other images meaningful to the work group; or holding an event such as a lunch or reception in memory of the deceased employee. Invite family members and close friends outside of work to share their memories with the group. You might also create a memory book filled with stories and sentiments from colleagues to give to the family, have a fundraiser to give a financial donation to a chosen charity, or write an article about the employee for the in-house newsletter.
Some of the practical issues which you will need to consider are as follows.
- Who will clear the deceased’s desk and personal belongings? Family members or a close work friend may want to handle the task of boxing up the deceased's personal belongings.
- Take steps to change the voicemail message, retrieving messages (voice mail and email),handling inquires intended for the deceased employee. These tasks could be shared or rotated among staff to ease the emotional burden of having to tell callers that the employee has died. Prepare a brief statement to assist those who reply to calls.
- Make arrangements for unfinished tasks or imminent work requirements. A short-term plan can be put into place until a more permanent decision can be made. It is best to make temporary arrangements as soon as possible to lessen the level of anxiety that might already be present in the staff. Make it clear what is needed and who is responsible.
- Don’t make any sudden changes in regard to the organisation of workspace. People need time to grieve the loss of their colleague before seeing his or her workstation dismantled. In a month or so, there will be more acceptance of the changes which come from the death.
- Consider when the replacement employee should be appointed. A new employee needs to be prepared for possible negative comparisons with the deceased employee. If the deceased was particularly well-liked, the transition will be even more difficult. It is advisable to give staff notice of the new employee's start date, relevant work background and to prepare them for the change. It is a normal part of accepting a loss to welcome someone new.
It will take time to come to terms with the loss, but after the initial shock and grief, time will start to heal. If you notice that after a period of time one of your employees still appears to still be grieving, talk to the employee, give feedback on what you have observed and share your concerns. You may suggest that he or she seeks some counselling. Often, a loss in one area of someone's life, as in the loss of a colleague, triggers unresolved feelings about previous losses or anticipated losses and the employee may need extra assistance in coping with these feelings.
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