How to support employees through the grief of losing a colleague

January 2, 2023

Written by
Emily Foy

It's never easy when an employee and workmate dies - but making sure you cover all the bases can make it less hard

Grief affects people in different ways. It can touch on all aspects of a person’s wellbeing – physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual. But everyone may react differently.

When a work colleague dies, it has an impact on the whole team. It can be especially traumatic if the death was unexpected, or if the individual had been at the organisation for a long time.
How the death of an employee is handled can affect relations between the employer, their team, the family of the individual and the wider community, so it is important that it is handled sensitively.

First days can be the hardest

The first days after a death are often the most difficult for HR professionals and managers. They are often not only dealing with the practicalities and logistics arising from the loss of the individual and supporting the emotions of their colleagues, but also grieving themselves.
It is important to communicate the death in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Try and notify those employees who were closest to the individual as a priority and, ideally, face-to-face.

It may be more practical to circulate the news to other employees by email but consider then arranging a meeting or video call to remember the individual together and answer any questions.

It may also be appropriate to have a spiritual care leader or grief specialist available to speak with employees after breaking the news. Allow staff members to take time off immediately after the death is announced and consider a phased return to work for those most affected.

Offer condolences, send flowers

Contact the family or closest friends to offer condolences and answer any questions that they might have about pay, benefits, death in service or pension arrangements. Make it easy for them to contact you later with any questions.

You may wish to send flowers from the organisation or to make a donation in their name and involving colleagues in this decision can create a sense of support and community.

Remember that the family may have other priorities, such as wanting to clear a desk of personal mementos or may not want to liaise with you at all, initially. Every family handles the grieving process differently.

After the initial notifications, ensure that the death does not go unmarked, and the team is not immediately required to ‘get back to work’. Try and make space available for colleagues to gather to remember the individual and spend time reflecting if they are struggling to focus on work.

Be prepared for the unexpected

Remember, also, that the death of a co-worker may reignite someone else’s grief over another loss and so try and foster an open and supportive culture, even for those who at first glance would not be as acutely affected.

Give employees information about funeral or memorial service arrangements (if appropriate) and allow and encourage co-workers to attend without having to use annual leave.

There will also be practical and logistical responsibilities to attend to, such as the individual’s workload and to whom this should be allocated and, if the employee was client facing, how clients will be informed of the death.

Follow any formal internal policies for reporting the death of a colleague and make sure that all appropriate bodies (payroll, pensions, share schemes etc) are informed.

There are a variety of commonly offered benefits that may also be appropriate in these circumstances, and it may be wise to provide a timely reminder of these, for example employee assistance programmes, counselling services and therapeutic support.

Also consider the terms of such benefits and whether they can be offered to the deceased’s partner or immediate family, who may otherwise have to rely on long waiting lists or privately paid services.

If your company does not offer these benefits, consider referring colleagues who are struggling to charitable organisations such as Mind or Cruse.

Don't forget, you are affected too

When dealing with the loss of a colleague, especially as an HR professional or manager, everyone may be looking to you for direction and support. Remember that you are all grieving this loss and there may be overwhelming expectations placed on you to support everyone else’s emotional and logistical issues. So ensure that you also receive the support that you need.
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