Managing Wellness

Coping With Grief in the Workplace: How to Deal With Death or Illness

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Posted by June 8, 2017

You never expected this day to come, and now that it’s here, you don’t know what to do. One of your staff walks in your office and lets you know she has a terminal illness; or worse, you get a call from an employee’s family member to let you know they passed away the night before. Coping with grief in the workplace is nothing you expected to deal with as a business owner, but now that you’re faced with either of these two situations, you are the person who’ll guide the rest of your staff through this difficult time.

The first thing you need to know is that it’s OK to feel as if you don’t have all of the answers. This is uncharted territory for you. As you’ll be supporting your entire staff through this difficult time, make sure that you have support for yourself, too. Contact your closest business friends to see if anyone has experienced a similar situation. In the meantime, here’s a starting place to help your staff who are coping with grief in the workplace.

Confidentiality and Employee Illness

Whatever you do, make sure to never disclose confidential employee health information with anyone else on your staff. Even if an employee asks directly, “What do you mean Maggie’s going to be out for a while? Is she sick? What’s wrong with her?” you cannot answer. Your employee’s medical information, if they’ve told you, is covered under HIPAA regulations. So, regardless of your caring nature, or your inquiring employee’s, it’s best to be direct and let everyone know you cannot share any information.

Terminally Ill or Seriously Sick Employees

If your employee comes to you with a medical crisis, there are ways you can help. First, offer FMLA job-protected coverage if your staff qualifies for it. Next, look at their employee benefits package with them. Do they qualify for short-term or long-term disability insurance? If so, your employees will be able to get some income replacement when they’re unable to work. Then, take actions to cover their responsibilities. It might mean that you need to hire a temporary employee to fill the position. Don’t pass any of the responsibilities onto your current, grief-stricken employees.

Your staff will also likely want to do something to help their teammate, and they may be looking to you for guidance. Some may offer to donate hours or days from their paid-time-off bank. Others may want to spearhead fundraising efforts to help their co-worker afford medical treatments. There may be talks of creating and delivering home-cooked meals to the home, sending flowers, or hiring a home-cleaning service. Allow your staff a little extra time in the workday to plan ways to help, and provide any assistance possible to help them achieve their goals. Remember that this is a temporary and immensely stressful time for your staff. By offering to help, and following through, they’re regaining a sense of control over a situation where they have none.

Coping With Grief After an Employee Passes Away

An employee death, especially one that is sudden, has the power to completely derail a well-running operation. Your staff may be stunned to learn that one of their teammates passed away, and because of that they may feel unable to move through the workday. If an employee passes away, bring in a grief counselor and encourage all employees to meet with this person, yourself included! Often, people tend to try to make loss disappear or suggest that those grieving “manage” that grief. But for what? Your employees need a safe space to process the death of their co-worker, especially if they’ve worked together for quite some time.

Similar to how they’d want to help after learning one of their co-workers is seriously ill, your employees may want to take action if one of their own passes away. Help facilitate their wishes, and if possible, allow your staff to attend any memorial services. This may mean that you’ll need to shut down for a portion of your normal working hours or you’ll have to hire temporary help to cover their shifts.

Losing a peer or an employee may feel devastating, but coping with grief in the workplace doesn’t have to be a lonely venture. Support your staff and get support from your colleagues to make it through a very difficult time in your business.

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