Coping with co-worker’s death takes time, support

Effects on staff and business vary

The death of an employee can have a profound effect on the co-workers he or she leaves behind, and not only can cause emotional fallout, but may also influence productivity and operations in the workplace. According to the Help Center at Stanford University, because strong personal bonds often are formed within work groups, the experience of grieving a co-worker’s death can be profound. The intensity of reactions will vary among individuals, but the following experiences are common:

  • numbness, shock, and disbelief;
  • decreased concentration and memory;
  • increased anxiety;
  • sleep disturbances, fatigue;
  • change in eating habits;
  • sadness, tearfulness;
  • headaches, muscle tension, stomachache;
  • irritability, frustration;
  • depression, emptiness.

Departments that have recently experienced a loss due to death are presented with a number of issues. There may be difficulties with productivity and attendance for those most affected by the loss. If new information about the deceased emerges at the time of death, or if events surrounding the death are upsetting (if the death was due to a violent accident, homicide, or suicide, for example), some employees may be shocked, anxious, or confused.

Decisions about the deceased employee’s possessions, workspace, and job responsibilities will have to be made; it is important that these decisions are made with a sensitivity for all those affected. There might be feelings of guilt, resentment, or uneasiness for staff members who assume roles previously handled by the deceased co-worker. Also, certain work situations may serve as reminders of the loss, and may trigger grief reactions unexpectedly.

It is important to understand that the emotional environment at work will be changed for a period of time, and that each person will have a unique reaction to the loss. Acknowledging and discussing the impact of the death can help with the process. In addition to offering referrals for counseling services for individuals, a company’s wellness coordinator, nurse, or EAP can arrange for facilitators to lead discussions in departments that would like to meet as a group. (See "Ways to help employees cope.")

Guidelines for supervisors and managers

When employees are affected by the death of a co-worker, personal loss, or serious illness, managers and supervisors are faced with the challenge of ensuring that employees are adequately supported while work responsibilities are being met. It’s important to keep in mind that not every employee will respond in the same way, and that the grieving process can last quite a while. Don’t expect a quick recovery, says the Help Center’s Nancy N. Reitz, LCSW, MPH. The process is different for everyone.

Research has shown that early intervention with the affected workgroup, within 24-72 hours after the word of a death arrives, reduces the stressful impact of the news. Co-workers have the opportunity to volunteer expressions of grief and time to share thoughts in remembrance of the person. Plans for gestures of condolence to family members can be completed and satisfy the general need to do something to commemorate the loss. Effectively managing what may be an extremely emotional situation for the affected workgroup may mean delegating certain duties associated with the death to those who are more detached from the situation.

Because an incident of this nature can result in a traumatic stress response, it is recommended that the employer — through its nurse, human resources office, or EAP — conduct a debriefing session for all affected employees within 24-48 hours after learning of the death. Research has found that early intervention with a work group reduces the possibility of delayed stress responses and enables the work group to return to their normal level of productivity sooner. Another benefit of the debriefing is that the organization and its management staff are viewed by employees as responsive and caring people.

The employer’s role is to create an accepting environment — whether through outside referrals for assistance, an in-house EAP, or company wellness program — in which the process of grieving is treated as normal, yet work still gets done. If an individual seems to be slipping into depression and managers or peers are concerned about the level or severity of his or her reaction, a consultation or referral is a good idea.

If the death of an employee affects many staff members, it may take some time for business to resume at usual levels. It may be impossible for some employees to work at their normal level of productivity, at least temporarily. Co-workers who take on extra workloads during such a transition should be appreciated and acknowledged.

For more information, contact: Nancy N. Reitz, LCSW, MPH, Help Center, Stanford University. Phone: (650) 723-4577. E-mail: helpcenter@lists.stanford.edu.