When bad things happen to good coworkers, it’s often difficult to know what to do or say. Death, illness, or a major loss or personal tragedy can be tricky subjects, especially in the workplace. Do you mention it, or just ignore the situation?
“All of these things, while we know that they are impactful for the individual employee, it’s also impactful at the workplace because the primary issue for most of us is, “What do I say to my friend?” says Dennis Potter, manager of consultant relations and training with Crisis Care Network, a consultancy that helps people get back to work after crises.
These situations are never going to be easy. However, there are some things to keep in mind to make them less awkward and truly help your colleague through a difficult time.
If you wait until you find exactly the right words or try to find a way to make the situation less painful, you’re never going to get around to saying anything, Potter says. In most situations, saying nothing is worse than conveying sincerely that you’re sorry this happened to the person, he says. If you have experience with a similar type of loss or tragedy, it may help to mention it if you’re comfortable–just be sure to be sensitive in doing so in a way that fosters connection instead of one-upping.
“You start by just acknowledging the loss. ‘I am so sorry this has happened to you. I’m so sorry this has happened to your child or to your loved one,’ or whatever the thing is, and make it specific,” he says. You don’t have to get into details or “fill in the blanks,” he adds. Usually just connecting in that very basic way is enough to bring comfort.
Common phrases like “Call me if you need anything” put the onus on the suffering person to find something and ask you to do it, Potter says. Instead, without being intrusive, try to anticipate the person’s needs and respond in an appropriate way. For example, drop off a meal or send a gift card that can be used for takeout if he or she is too tired to cook one night. Ask if you can stop by for a visit, or find a way to lend a hand if your coworker is in the office.
The key is to actively look for an appropriate action to take that will relieve the person of a small task or responsibility in an appropriate way and bring a bit of comfort, he says.
Barbara Bowes, founder of coaching firm Legacy Bowes Group, says that when you are thinking about what to say or do, it’s important to keep the type of relationship you have in mind. If you’re casual acquaintances at work, don’t stop by the person’s home for a visit unannounced. If you’re the person’s supervisor, you need to be even more mindful of keeping intact the line between caring and inappropriateness. Don’t let it stop you from expressing condolences or offering assistance, but don’t make the person feel like he or she needs to discuss personal information, she says.
One thing you shouldn’t do is start asking a bunch of questions, Bowes says. While you might be gathering information to try to be helpful, asking intrusive questions like “What happened?” or “What’s your diagnosis?” can not only alienate the employee, but it can run afoul of workplace regulations related to privacy or disability accommodation.
Showing care as a group can sometimes be more effective than many awkward on-on-one exchanges, Bowes says. If it suits your company culture, consider a group gesture, she suggests. It could be something as simple as a card with everyone’s signature or a fun group photo, or you could organize a team to run in a cause-related event. For example, if a colleague is diagnosed with cancer, office mates might participate in a fun run or walk to support funding research for a cure. The key is to show that the person is feeling supported by the group, she says.