How to Support Employees Coping with the Sudden Loss of a Colleague—Elaine Varelas Consults

Ask the Job Doc. —Boston.com

Q: I work in HR and the group I support is pretty tight knit, both at work and socially. We recently lost a member of the team in a sudden and tragic accident. What can I do to help everyone cope? My company has never had to deal with anything like this.

A: I am very sorry to hear of the loss you and your team are experiencing—this can be a very difficult time for everyone. Hopefully your organization recognizes and appreciates the fact that people need the support of their organization when something as significant and tragic as the sudden loss of a colleague happens. People are not just workers—colleagues develop relationships with each other and that needs to be recognized. Whether your employees are casual workplace acquaintances or close friends who get together outside of work, dealing with the death of a team member is difficult, especially as loss generates memories of other significant losses people have experienced. Organizations need to provide the resources to help people move forward through these challenges.

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Many companies use Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to provide an array of support services. EAPs are third-party service providers, with more limited options sometimes offered through insurance companies. Large organizations may even have an in-house EAP. Some EAPs will also provide on-call emergency support, even if you are not a client. The true value of an EAP comes from the fact that individuals can access these services on their own and managers can access them as a resource for their own support and to develop strategies to support their teams.

I consulted Kathy Greer, Founder and Chairman of KGA, Inc., a leading provider of Employee Assistance and Work-Life Programs, crisis management, and stress management services. An expert on navigating similar situations, Greer has worked through a wide scope of organizational tragedies, including plane crashes, sudden deaths, and the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Greer highlights that your team members’ reaction to the loss of their colleague can range from shock and numbness to disbelief and anger. Employees may dwell on the event, feel anxious or want to stay home, and/or become overly emotional. Getting back to work can be difficult when someone you saw every day, five days a week for any number of years, is no longer there—and people will work through their grief in different ways.

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As the team leader, communicate openly and offer support to your colleagues to help re-establish routines. Specifically, Greer recommends communicating about the feelings you are experiencing and talking about the loss. This might mean coming together to find ways to help process grief, perhaps contributing to a memorial fund or non-profit in the name of your colleague. Greer also recommends participating in memorial services to the extent that you feel comfortable, whether it is attending the funeral or dropping off food or a gift card for a food delivery for your colleague’s family. After a loss in the workplace, managers should be highly visible and observant, check in on employees, and ask how they are doing. Allow employees to talk about what they are experiencing and ask open-ended questions to get a sense of how they are coping. You will likely have a lot on your plate right now and spending the extra time may feel like an added stress, but it will be worth the investment of time. Remember, you don’t have to have solutions to your employees’ issues—just allowing them to talk is helpful.

When should you be concerned about how an employee is coping? Greer says to think about the duration and intensity of the reaction. Reactions will be intense in the weeks immediately following a tragedy, and with time, that intensity will lessen. If someone continues to struggle to recover, connect the employee with your EAP provider for additional support and resources.

After a tragedy, productivity may be impacted. Helping employees through these kinds of trauma and loss is both good for people and good for business.