Supporting staff through the loss of a colleague - Emerge UK
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Supporting staff through the loss of a colleague

We spend so much time together at work and our relationships with our colleagues can be very intense, so when something happens to one of them, the effect on people around them will be incredibly strong. We work together, laugh together, complain to each other, share successes and commiserate on failures. The sheer scale of the corona virus means that it is possible your organisation will be touched by the death of a colleague and so I wanted to write something to help you think about how you help people cope with it.

The hole that these deaths leave will be tangible, but emotions and work don’t always go together. It is worth remembering that as a society we are not comfortable dealing with death and therefore we can feel a bit lost when it comes to comforting grieving staff.

When we are grieving for a family member, we have the support of other relatives, time in our own home to go through the process and to experience any emotions that may hit us. Unfortunately, when it comes to work, business has to go on and so you don’t get the same time to grieve, plus after the months of isolation we may get so caught up in needing to catch up that we don’t give it the same time.

Sadly, I have several examples of personal experience of this. Back in 1999, I was working for a client in Portsmouth delivering a training course for them. There was a knock at the door of the training room and I was asked to go to their head office in Slough immediately.  They told me they thought that they had lost some staff in the Paddington Rail crash – a terrible crash at Ladbroke Grove, where 31 people died and 417 were injured. When I arrived in Slough, they had just received confirmation that 2 people had died and they were unsure of how to handle it.  We worked through that terrible day, learning some lessons as we did on how to effectively support staff and helping them to process the news and start grieving. 

16 years later, I remember running to get a train at Waterloo and flinging myself in a seat on the crowded 17.35 to Southampton.  I took a call from my colleague John, who worked for an associate company that we had gone into partnership with to deliver training in the Middle East. Each year we attended the exhibition in Dubai together and along with Trevor and Barry we had the most amazing fun. As I sat on the train, I remember John’s words telling me that he was sorry, but Trevor had died.  I couldn’t process it, Trevor who we had been in Dubai with just a few months ago? Trevor who had emailed me last week and who I was due to be going to a client with next week?  Trevor the super fit triathlete? It felt like he was joking but he wasn’t.  Trevor had been delivering training in a hotel and had gone to bed and just never woke up.  The staff found him in bed the next morning a victim of Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome. I was on a sardine packed train, I couldn’t weep, I couldn’t phone anyone and I just sat there for an hour and a half completely stunned.

The shock was overpowering and it took me a long time to deal with it. I am now thinking of all the people in the UK who might have heard of colleagues dying but because they have been in lockdown will not have processed this properly. When they return to work, they will be faced with that massive void – the desk where the colleague used to sit, their mug in the kitchen cupboard, all the emails they recently sent, the projects that they were working on together. And it will be incredibly hard for them, particularly if continued social distancing doesn’t allow them to grieve in the way we normally would. There will be no funeral for them to attend, no closure, they will have to work through this in their own time.

As just one awful example, I read about a terribly sad case yesterday, the Head of IT at a major television company, someone posted his last three tweets, the first one talking about being a new dad and how they were coping, the next one saying he was in hospital with Covid-19 and that it was awful and he had thought he was a ‘goner’ but was clearly OK. Then a final post from his brother telling the world he had passed away.   He is just one of many who will not be returning to their desks and their projects and colleagues. This is the heartbreak we may have to cope with once the euphoria of being able to go back to life has subsided, the grim reality of the damage the virus has really done.

So, what do you need to consider;

  • If staff don’t know about the person passing, and you are going to make a group announcement when people return, ensure that it is by someone who knew them well and can talk with compassion rather than nominating HR to do it
  • Make a short-dignified announcement.  Call everyone together at the same time. Strike a balance between being humane and pragmatic
  • Publicly acknowledging the loss of the worker, validating their contributions and how much they would be missed and allowing people to have permission to grieve
  • If the person managed a team, this is going to be particularly difficult as the team will feel incredibly lost and may need a lot of help.  Ensure you spend some time talking to each team member about their objectives, what they had agreed with their manager in terms of development or projects they were going to work on so you can help them with some continuity and certainty
  • Post Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) information in visible places and ensure everyone has been emailed with the details

Practical issues

  • It may help to move the office around so that if a new person or temp comes in, they are not taking that person’s space
  • Set up a forum for public discussion run by a professional counsellor or skilled HR member
  • Consider what to do about their email address
  • Ensure there is a condolences book that can be completed – put it on line for now until you can have a physical book
  • Deal sensitively with the person’s belongings, when you get back into work  and try and do this when no-one is around
  • If you hire a replacement, remember people may find it difficult to accept them so tread sensitively and protect all involved
  • If you have photos from work events gather these as the family may not have seen them
  • Consider what will happen to the work that the person used to do – if in the short term you are splitting it between existing colleagues, make sure you hold these conversations very sensitively. It would be easy to get into work mode and forget  what you are dealing with now
  • What message are you going to send out to the rest of the business?
  • How will you tell clients? Ensure any communication is worded sensitively

Supporting people through feelings

  • Try to assess who will be most affected, it is not always the obvious people
  • Don’t assume that you know how the person is feeling
  • Also remember that some people may be concerned that they have passed on the virus to their co-worker if they had it themselves
  • Appoint someone to deal with administrative aspects i.e. answerphone messages and emails
  • You may find people getting very tense and irritated about things or becoming stressed and self-medicating with food, cigarettes or alcohol. Don’t judge, but do check in with them on how they are feeling
  • Everyone grieves differently – some may be very matter of fact and may have come to terms with it during lockdown, others may still be in denial
  • Offer counselling and ensure they know how to access it
  • People may assume that the other people should get over it quickly – ask them to be sensitive
  • It may be that whilst they didn’t know the person, their death has brought back memories of their own situations
  • They may have relied on the co-worker to do their job and this will have an impact
  • Look after yourself, you may still be grieving too

Other things that may help;

  • Do something to show your support for the family.  It may feel too late to send flowers, but a card can still be very much appreciated
  • Alternatively, you could make a donation to a charity that they used to support
  • Encourage people to get together and talk about their memories
  • A bulletin board for people to put up photos and write memories may help
  • Do hold an internal memorial event
  • Ask the team how they might like to remember the person, i.e. a plaque, plant a tree, naming a conference room, a company award i.e. scholarship or cup to commemorate them every year
  • Consider doing a fundraiser for the family – people love to do something practical

We sincerely hope that you won’t have to take the above measures but it is always useful to be prepared.

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