Dealing with the death of an employee
Eugene Farrell, Head of Trauma Support Services for AXA PPP healthcare looks at the ways in which companies can deal with loss, supporting colleagues through a very difficult time.
The death of an employee is a tragic event and can be very unsettling within an organisation. Whether it is through natural causes, sudden death, accident or suicide, the loss can affect colleagues, managers and the wider organisation, leading to major disruption. It is important for organisations to be prepared for such situations and the aftermath and this is especially true if the death is linked directly to the workplace, in which case you must report the death. While safety and health practitioners do their best to drive safety, tragic accidents, such as the Didcot Power Station explosion, which lead to loss of life can and do occur.
Workplace crisis events can generate feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and or entrapment for employees, which make them difficult to manage. These things often happen without warning and can easily catch the organisation unawares – and at its weakest time.
What should an organisation do immediately after an incident?
People will want to know what happened. While some will want detail, others will not, so getting the balance of information right is important, which can be challenging as it may be difficult to get accurate information at this time. However, saying nothing is often unhelpful and it may be better to say what little you know immediately and add more later. The decision how and when to announce the loss needs some thought and depends upon the situation at the time. For an expected death due to illness, this may be a team announcement or wider if the person was a key leader and or well known in the business. The same may also apply to a sudden loss of an employee. A ‘Town Hall’ announcement might be appropriate for some organisations while an intranet post or a personal e-mail from a senior person in the business may be better for others. Usually it is best to tell people as soon as possible to minimise any speculation as well as to provide any support employees might need.
Whatever kind of announcement you choose to make, it is important to acknowledge the feelings of employees and not be afraid to be more human and less corporate. Due to sharing on social media some employees may already be aware of the loss and this may accelerate disruption and distress, leaving the organisation playing catch up.
People come together in times of loss and this shared experience and the support it provides is very important. Allow some time and space for people to get together and listen to their needs. People can vary a lot in what they want after loss so don’t impose your own view of what you think they want and need. The arrival of counsellors on site can seem like an intrusion for some people while others will welcome the support to help them to make sense of the situation and to begin to move on. Some organisations have used a minute silence as a powerful and respectful remembrance – particularly after a violent death. This may be within the department or across the organisation. It allows everyone to get involved and brings everyone together.
At this time the organisation may be very disrupted as employees may not have their usual focus. Managers may also struggle to cope as being in the dual role of manager – managing others while they too feel the loss personally – can be very difficult. A team may look to their manager for help but they may be unable to do so. This is where on-site counselling support can help an organisation – and where external support such as an employee assistance program can also help.
On-site support can help individuals to make sense of where they are emotionally and of the likely feelings and emotions they may have over the coming weeks. It can also provide a safe and confidential place for one to one support. On-site support can easily be arranged to take place between 24 and 72 hours of the news.
Acts of remembrance
If employees wish to place flowers or tributes on the person’s desk, that can be helpful as too is a book of remembrance. Arranging a simple gathering at the desk is often a good thing to do and provides a focus and coming together for those affected by the sad news.
The family of the lost employee may wish to visit and see the place of work of their loved one as it can be helpful for them. But don’t force employees to meet with them. This should be an open invitation, as some people may not feel comfortable meeting the family. Show the family the desk and workplace and they can have the remembrance book after everyone has signed it. Reading the words can be a great comfort to family members.
Allow employees to attend the funeral if they wish to but don’t feel that you have to speak at the funeral. The family will understand if this is too uncomfortable for you. Similarly, respect their wishes in the ceremony and only speak if asked to.
Remember that financially this may be a difficult time for the family as they may be cut off from income. Therefore raise the subject with them and do what you can practically to help.
Managers need to be vigilant looking after staff both during and after such an event. A loss may remind someone of something from the past. It may bring up buried feelings and result in difficulty coping. This may exhibit itself as anger, relationship difficulties, absence or poor work, for example. Managers need to be able to offer support and to manage the situation. It is here that an employee assistance programme can be very useful to support the manager and as a referral point.
In reality, organisations have to return to normal working and in many ways that is useful. Don’t turn the lost employee’s desk into a shrine forever. You will have a sense as to when it should be cleared – the next day is too soon while a month later is probably too long. A few days to a week seems respectful or perhaps until just after the funeral.
An act of remembrance is not always needed although, for bigger incidents such as a terrorist attack, some people have found it helpful to have a simple act on the anniversary. Keeping it low key and respectful seems to work best.
How an organisation reacts to such situations is seen by employees as defining how that organisation truly is. By being prepared, employers can react sooner and with greater compassion and genuine feeling, thus demonstrating their caring, supportive nature.
In the aftermath there may be a need for investigation, or perhaps one has been done formally. It is important to learn from any mistakes, acknowledge them and look at how these can be avoided in future. This learning may well be something that you as an organisation want to tell all employees so that transparency over actions exists.
Information on depression and being a better listener is available on the AXA PPP website, here.
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