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Dealing with the death of a colleague in the workplace

The sudden death of a coworker is often a jarring, upsetting experience. As the workforce ages, it’s likely to only become more commonplace.

Dealing with the death of a colleague in the workplace
[Photo: camilo jimenez/Unsplash]

What I remember was not being able to get an elevator.

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Though I wasn’t late for my job as an assistant at the University of Southern California, it seemed the sluggish building elevator was going to change my status from slightly early to paycheck-docking-ly late. After close to 10 minutes, I trudged up the stairs, grumbling under my breath. Some kids were probably holding the elevator door for their classmates. It was only as I walked into the studio suite that I grasped the grim reality.

It’s been years, but I still remember seeing the neighboring department head lying on the floor, paramedics on top of him, around him, trying to pound the breath back into his lifeless body. It was a shock, and not just because you don’t expect to see paramedics in your office. The man, a former movie studio executive, was older but remarkably fit and full of energy. He didn’t seem like a candidate for a massive coronary.

I remember making a hasty exit. Worried bystanders were being shooed out of the hallways to give the paramedics room to leave. Someone was, as it turned out, holding the elevator doors open.

After the paramedics had taken him away, I remember how teachers and students gathered in the office, talking in hushed voices, eyes wide. I wondered why my own boss was so distraught, unable to stop crying for hours. Later, word circulated that, despite exhaustive efforts, the department head had died. This news resulted in a mix of reactions: students worried about their studies, colleagues in tears, others glassy-eyed and seemingly lost. What was consistent was the sense that no one knew the right way to move forward.

Fortunately, death in the workplace is rare. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 5,147 workers died on the job in 2017. That may sound like a lot, but it’s only 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers (and one in five of those deaths was in construction).

“It’s incredibly shocking and graphic if the person died in the workplace, but mostly it’s someone who died at home of a heart attack or had an accident over the weekend,” says Jeff Gorter, clinical director at behavioral health company R3 Continuum, adding that about half of the 1,500 “crisis events” his company responds to each month are for the unexpected death of an employee. “The shock for employees is to come into the office and be given the news.”

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Death in and out of the office will likely become less of a rarity as the workforce ages. Eighty-five percent of baby boomers plan to work until their 70s or 80s, according to a report from the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging. Almost a quarter plan to never retire.

An increasing number of workplaces have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) on call to bring in grief counselors when needed. “A lot of times the managers at a company want to contain everything,” says Rebecka Mevorah, a licensed clinical worker and senior EAP counselor for COPE. “They don’t want employees’ reactions spilling out all over the place.”

For a lot of workers, the fact they have any reaction at all to the death of an acquaintance—someone they may have only chatted with in the office kitchen—is jarring. “People think, ‘Why am I feeling this?’ But sometimes working with someone for five years can be, unfortunately, more significant than the time we spend with good friends,” says Litsa Williams, cofounder of the site What’s Your Grief? “We don’t have a framework for that, and we may feel we have less of a right to have emotions about that.”

Those emotions can be wildly varied and aren’t often ones someone wants to have in a work environment. Anger, guilt, and tears can bubble to the surface. “Grief reactions can be unique to our relationship to the person who died, but also include all of our life experiences and other things from our past, ranging from our own mortality to personal losses,” says Williams. (My boss who wouldn’t stop sobbing? She later told me that around the time our coworker died, she learned that her breast cancer had returned.)

Counselors are quick to point out that whatever reaction people have is just fine. “A lot of what we do is try to normalize what employees are feeling,” says Mevorah. These external counselors can also help bosses understand how best to step up at a time when employees need leadership and compassion most. “I often encourage people to follow ACT,” says Gorter, explaining that this is an acronym for acknowledging the event, communicating with compassion, and offering a transition to a “future focus.”

Though grief counselors may help employees process a colleague’s death, Williams says not everyone will be ready to share their feelings. They may not have fully processed events when a grief counselor is available. Or, if they are ready to talk, they may be unwilling to speak about their feelings to a stranger, especially in the middle of the workday. “No one wants to do that, then go back and finish their day in the office,” she says.

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Williams says speaking to a grief counselor isn’t always necessary. “Eighty-five percent of the time, people can cope without professional support as long as they get normalization validation and learn a little about grief and that it’s normal,” Williams says. “Often it seems that HR feels they need to take care of it instead of having an honest conversation with the employees, sitting down and saying, ‘You worked closely with John, what do you think would be appropriate, what do you think feels right?'”

Though the heavy lifting often gets passed to professionals, a boss who’s able to rally is ultimately most important. “A leader can make people feel supported and valued,” says Gorter. “They don’t have to do anything magical. When I ask employees what would help, they say they just want to get back to normal, get back to work.”

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