Managing Sudden Loss In The Workplace

By Jean Becker

It was an intimate office with only five staff members led by Janet. Ed, the event planner, had served the organization for years. A family man, Ed decorated his office with photos of his wife Sara and their two daughters. The company ran efficiently and solved problems with creativity. But there was one problem no one expected. One evening Janet received a call from Ed’s neighbor that Sara was suddenly gone -- killed instantly in an automobile accident. Janet was totally unprepared.

How would she keep herself in tact so she could do what was needed for Ed and still maintain an efficient office? There hadn’t been any training to guide the management and co-workers on how to manage personal emergencies, crises or illness. Forced to use her instincts, Janet took charge of the situation to prevent additional hardships for Ed and the rest of the office.

Some answers were found in the opus of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross and the five stages of grief. Many go through all the stages or at least some of them during a loss. Those around the grieving person can also experience the same emotions.

Other answers would be found from past experiences. Previously, one employee had suffered through a divorce. Another experienced a long recovery after a serious illness. These were losses too. Sudden loss in the workplace can be handled with the following tips:

  • Personal Contact: There should be immediate contact from a boss or supervisor to reassure the person that their job is secure and it is okay to take time off. The amount of time varies depending on the individual’s emotional needs and responsibilities at home. Returning to work too soon can be more costly than time off since it may be hard to concentrate, which can lead to errors and misjudgments. A parent caring for a seriously ill child or family member should have the same consideration. Trained and experienced employees are valuable assets and replacing them can be costly.

  • Co-worker Contact: Give all employees an opportunity to have contact by providing a note of condolence for everyone to sign. This will help prevent awkwardness when the person returns to work. Address the note to the entire family since all family members are grieving. In the case of absence due to illness or illness of a family member, a “thinking of you” note is appropriate. Staff members may also be grieving and they may have the need to express themselves by sending flowers or giving a contribution to a charity.

  • Offering Assistance: Co-workers may also want to have more direct contact and provide comfort by offering to do something specific. Ask the person what it is that would be helpful. Ask if he needs you to do an errand, make a few phone calls or even help out with the care of family pets. This usually puts the person at ease so it is easier for him to ask and gets better results than the overused phrase, “let me know if there is anything I can do.” 

  • Respect Privacy: Respect the privacy of the individual and get his or her approval before sharing information with staff members. In the case of a family crisis involving marital difficulties or problems with children, privacy must be respected and it is your ethical obligation to do so. Tread softly because everyone has a different level of privacy and each situation is different.

  • Workload Management: Work can be divided into three categories, (a) routine work, (b) time sensitive matters, and (c) work that can be tabled for a short or extended period of time. Someone from a “temporary service” can accomplish routine tasks. This will eliminate pressure if the workload is extensive, and protect the workplace from possible resentment from co-workers. Work that needs immediate attention can be assigned to one or several employees depending on its depth and volume. Give praise to employees who are eager to be helpful and have pitched in on previous occasions. If co-workers do not have the skill to accomplish time-sensitive matters, it may fall into management’s domain. Work that is tabled can be a fresh start for the person returning to work, especially since his routine work has not become an overwhelming mountain and time- sensitive matters have been handled. A new project can be exciting and uplifting, which makes it a good match for the person returning to work after a loss or illness. You may find he is eager to get started and will appreciate the opportunity to do something different.

  • Provide Resources: If your office already has a local resource booklet, now is the time to update it with listings you might not have even thought about before. Some phone numbers to include: service for repairs, transportation, childcare, elder care, counseling, local utilities, social security, local government, and appropriate websites. Co-workers may even have recommendations of companies they have used. If you want to further assist this person, you may ask if there are some resources he is looking for and then do the research for him.

  • Offer to Provide Counseling: If your company can afford it, provide counseling. The investment can save the company many more dollars than the cost. In some cases, a person may be too overwhelmed to do their job. You already have an investment in this person and it would cost much more to replace him. Make sure he understands that this is an offer and that he will be making the decision whether or not to attend. The privacy obligation is paramount here.

  • Keep The Office Normal: It is a good idea to invite the person to business and social activities outside the workplace when he or she returns to work, just as you do normally. He will decide when he is ready to join in. Keep activities normal in the office. You do not need to suddenly become a best buddy to someone you hardly know. Try not to overcompensate with expressions of sympathy to cover your own awkwardness. You do not need to treat the person any differently than usual.

  • Show Compassion: We all know how to be human, but we may need to know how to be compassionate at work. It can be difficult for the person to return and it may take some time for him or her to adjust. Keep the office free of emotional stress by providing a quiet place and a few minutes of time for the person to collect his thoughts or communicate with co-workers. This will help to avoid disruptions during the workday. Then, this environment could be a resting place away from sorrow and become a place for healing.

It is normal for a person to grieve for several months and it is important to keep in mind that grieving is a process. It will work itself out in its own time. Losing a loved one is not something you “get over” or “forget.” It is something you go through and get through with the understanding of those around you at home and at work. When in doubt, err on the side of compassion.

Read other articles and learn more about Jean Becker.

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