Work­place grief

Pre­pare to help staff, cus­tomers af­ter death of a col­league

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE - BAR­BARA BOWES

HAVE you ever ex­pe­ri­enced the sense of gnaw­ing, raw pain that re­sults from the death of a loved one? If so, you know this pain is grip­ping and numbs one’s thoughts to such an ex­tent your breath is taken away.

There is such a tremen­dous sense of loss. A dark cloud seems to hang over you as your mind races and swings back and forth from shock to anger to sad­ness and con­fu­sion. Tears flow eas­ily. And yes, while the sad­ness and pain dis­si­pate and lessen over the years, it doesn’t take much to bring those feel­ings back from those painful mem­o­ries.

This same pain can oc­cur when you ex­pe­ri­ence the death of a col­league. Just ask those who have ex­pe­ri­enced this trauma over the past lit­tle while. Be­lieve me, death of a col­league can hit in­di­vid­u­als and or­ga­ni­za­tions equally as hard. Af­ter all, over time, col­leagues be­come part of our work­life fam­ily. We may even idol­ize and envy their skills and ex­per­tise. As well, we spend long hours with our team­mates — we laugh to­gether, we learn to­gether, we face chal­lenges to­gether, and we cel­e­brate to­gether.

Some­times the col­league who has passed on is our boss and/or an or­ga­ni­za­tional leader. While this rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ent type of in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion­ship, none the less, these leader col­leagues have been im­por­tant to us in our spe­cific job roles. They may have pro­vided day-to-day as well as long-term guid­ance and ca­reer ad­vice. Or, they may have led the suc­cess of an or­ga­ni­za­tion or a po­lit­i­cal party, the fruits of which you now en­joy. As a re­sult, the death of a leader also cre­ates a good deal of per­sonal pain, not un­like that which arises from the death of a fam­ily mem­ber.

How­ever, while fam­ily mem­bers may take more time to grieve, this is not a lux­ury that is af­forded a busi­ness. The void from the loss of lead­er­ship and/or the loss of an in­di­vid­ual’s key skill must be filled ur­gently. A busi­ness can’t sim­ply stop its op­er­a­tions for days at a time. Cus­tomers are wait­ing. Share­hold­ers are want­ing.

There­fore, the chal­lenge for a busi­ness is how to grace­fully pro­vide an ef­fec­tive tran­si­tion with­out of­fend­ing fam­i­lies and em­ploy­ees, while at the same time as­sur­ing cus­tomers that life is busi­ness as usual. Not only that, the busi­ness must also deal with the sense of loss be­ing felt by its em­ploy­ees as this grief can greatly af­fect the level of pro­duc­tiv­ity and over­all morale.

There are no right or wrong ways for a cor­po­ra­tion or or­ga­ni­za­tion of any kind to grieve the loss of a col­league. How­ever, there are some proven strate­gies that will help you cope and to ex­press grief in a healthy and con­struc­tive way. These ef­forts will be ap­pre­ci­ated by cus­tomers/clients, the fam­ily and the re­main­ing col­leagues. Tak­ing care to fo­cus on a care­ful tran­si­tion will as­sist your or­ga­ni­za­tion to show re­spect while at the same time mov­ing on. Con­sider the fol­low­ing:

Com­mu­ni­cate, com­mu­ni­cate, com­mu­ni­cate — There is noth­ing worse than hear­ing about a col­league’s death on the news. While this can­not be helped in some cir­cum­stances, take emer­gency ac­tion to com­mu­ni­cate as much in­for­ma­tion and as quickly as you can to your em­ploy­ees. Pre­pare a com­mu­niqué to your clients/cus­tomer base and as­sure them that busi­ness will carry on as usual.

Put plans in place quickly — When hit with the news of a death, in­di­vid­u­als will feel the usual grief symp­toms, but they will also quickly be­come anx­ious about the sta­bil­ity of their own ca­reer sit­u­a­tion. Hope­fully, there is a backup plan in place, but if not, de­velop that plan on an emer­gency ba­sis and make it known to ev­ery­one con­cerned.

Be pre­pared for ques­tions — Brain­storm the type of ques­tions you an­tic­i­pate the em­ploy­ees will ask. Pre­pare a ques­tion and an­swer sheet and en­sure that all man­agers work from the same script. You will be sur­prised what ques­tions will arise. Do the same for your clients and cus­tomers. Pro­vide con­tact numbers for peo­ple to call or email with additional ques­tions.

Coach your man­agers — Whereas most peo­ple are un­com­fort­able deal­ing with death in the work­place, you will need to coach man­agers on how to deal with grief and loss. Stress the need for pa­tience and un­der­stand­ing. Point out the cor­po­rate ini­tia­tives and re­view the pre­pared ques­tion and an­swer doc­u­ment so that they will feel more at ease. Ad­vise them to en­sure they main­tain an open-door pol­icy.

Pro­vide em­ployee grief coun­selling — For those as­so­ci­ates who were much more close to the de­parted col­league, pro­vide on­site grief coun­selling. This is fre­quently avail­able through your ben­e­fit in­sur­ance provider. If this is not avail­able, there are sev­eral ven­dors avail­able upon whom you can call.

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