Moral Support: Coping with the death of a colleague

iStock / Cineberg
iStock / Cineberg

Those working in the construction industry and electrical field are more likely to experience an on-the-job fatality than others in the private sector. However, whether a colleague passes away on or off the job, the mental and emotional impact can be difficult to deal with for their surviving coworkers.

Company policies, safety manuals and wellness programs rarely address events such as loss. Individuals cope with loss differently. However, the grieving process must be allowed to run its course. If grief is not properly dealt with, it can result in more severe symptoms, such as anxiety or depression.

Unfortunately, there is no one fix or response to loss, and there is no set amount of time adequate for the grieving process. It can be difficult, but healing has to happen at its own pace. Those closest to the deceased are likely to have a more difficult time with the loss.

Other factors that may impact the level of grief include age of the deceased, the number of years they were employed with the company and whether or not the death was sudden. If the person was ill leading up to their death, co-workers may have been more prepared to cope with the loss.

A number of warning signs may indicate whether people are struggling with grief. These may include fatigue, low morale, inability to concentrate, expressing anger, high turnover, lack of motivation or other depression symptoms. Fortunately, there are ways to help employees manage the loss and grieve with limited disruption to the workplace.

Some employers may provide or make grief counselors available to workers following the death of colleague. If an employer does not provide a counselor, employees that are struggling should find someone to talk to. Meeting with a counselor, therapist or doctor can help individuals return to optimal physical, mental and emotional health quicker than if they keep their grief to themselves. Employers need to be understanding and provide flexibility in scheduling for those workers seeking help.

Employers should not automatically assume that workers need a lighter workload following a loss. Often, sticking to a regular work routine can provide structure and be a helpful distraction to those dealing with their grief. During the grieving process, everyone should respect each other’s privacy. It’s fine to check on others to see how they are doing, but don’t pry or ask for specifics unless details are offered in conversation.

In her article “Grief in the Workplace” on psycom.net, counselor Kathleen Smith offered this advice: “Other people may have not been as close to the deceased as you were, and vice versa. Respecting that everyone will experience grief differently and may have had a different relationship with those lost will help the process along in the workplace. Telling someone they need to ‘move on’ or ‘snap out of it’ is never helpful.”

Openly communicating with others in the workplace can be helpful and comforting for those experiencing loss. Sharing memories about the deceased can have a beneficial impact. Stories may lead to laughing or crying, which can be good and are part of the grieving process.

Giving back is also a wonderful way to honor the person who was lost. Creating a scholarship, starting a fundraiser or planting a tree in their name can have a profoundly positive effect.

When grieving, colleagues should participate in stress-reducing activities, get regular exercise and get enough sleep. Eating a healthy diet and limiting alcohol intake are good habits that will help individuals maintain a positive attitude and improve mental and emotional well-being.

Finally, according to its “Grief and Loss Guidance,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, “Many people are experiencing grief during the COVID-19 pandemic. Grief is a normal response to loss during or after a disaster or other traumatic event.”

Therefore, it is important to understand that people can experience grief over losing their teammates to events other than death. For example, co-workers transitioning to another job location, dealing with a personal injury, retiring, quitting or being terminated can also impact the mental and emotional health of workers.

About the Author

tom o’connor

O’CONNOR is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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