The Impact of a Sudden Death in the Workplace

September 10, 2018
bullying at work

William Brown, LICSW, M.Ed., CEAP, Director of EAP Operations, New England Region at AllOne Health shares his expertise on the impact of a sudden employee death on the workplace.

Death is never an easy topic to address or deal with, especially in the workplace. It might be difficult and saddening to think about, but there may come a time in a person’s career when they are faced with the death of a coworker. The U.S. loses many people to illness, accidents, suicide and other causes of death each year. When a person passes away, grief is typically part of the process family and friends deal with. But coworkers of the deceased person might also be dealing with trauma that managers and the organization should address.

Employers struggle with how to address their teams when a death occurs. Should a memo get sent out? How should the deceased employee’s desk be cleaned out? What resources can an employee be referred to if they are struggling? How should they address the reactions of the remaining coworkers?

Understanding Reactions:

When a coworker passes away, employees vary in their reactions.  Some may experience disequilibrium based on their own personal experiences.

Grief reactions may include:

  • Shock
  • Sadness
  • Numbness
  • Disorientation
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Anxiety about the future
  • Inability to concentrate

A loss at work often stirs up feelings about the other losses that your employees have experienced.  EAP services are an important resource to direct your employees to. There are immediate actions that employers can take to help ease reactions that employees might be experiencing.

Supportive Actions to Take:

  • Consider allowing employees to go home.  Employees may be too upset to work, and may find it comforting to be with their loved ones.  Since some employees may take sick time following an upsetting event, it can be helpful to discuss this option with employees proactively.
  • If a debriefing is being planned, let employees know about it as soon as possible.  Knowing that a discussion will take place, even if it is still in the process of being scheduled, can be reassuring for employees.
  • Keep employees informed.  Tell employees what you know so far, even if you don’t have full information yet.  If you don’t keep them posted, they may fill the information void with rumors and resent the company for keeping them in the dark.  In the case of an ill, injured, or deceased employee, designate one employee to be the primary contact with the employee’s family.
  • Think about other employee needs.  Would it help to make temporary changes in work schedules or breaks?  If the situation involved the death of an employee, will co-workers be allowed time off to attend the funeral?  Will the company send a card or flowers to the family, or make other gestures (e.g., start a memorial fund)?
  • Be aware of employees who may be INDIRECTLY traumatized.  Some deaths may unfortunately occur within the workplace. They could be of natural causes or from occupational hazards, but it is very important to be aware of how others might be reacting to a death within the workplace.  It is common for the effects of a situation to affect not just those employees who actively witnessed or participated in the incident, but also those who may be thinking, “This could have happened to me!”  Be alert to the reactions of employees in parallel situations/ positions, and those who were friends or co-workers of the directly affected employees, for example.  They may also be experiencing symptoms of trauma or having difficulty functioning at work or home.  It is very important to acknowledge this directly, and give all of those who may need to heal, time and permission to do so.  The EAP can appropriately be offered as a resource for all of these employees.

The company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a strong partner in navigating these difficult situations. An EAP can provide Critical Incident Response and be available for on-site counseling for team members. They can also provide on-going counseling and resources that can continue to provide support to traumatized employees even after some time has passed.