Leading a team affected by a coworker’s traumatic loss
We tend not to talk about what happens in the workplace when someone suffers a traumatic loss. This situation affects the whole team, and when it occurs, being prepared and having a plan of action will make a complicated and potentially messy situation so much easier to manage.
In the immediate time after you’ve gotten the sad news and told your bereaved employee that you will be in touch with them with a plan, it’s time to attend to your team and figure out, collectively, how to adjust during the bereavement leave.
Immediate term: Check in with the family to see what’s needed. Maybe the grieving person has a friend at the office who can serve as the point of contact for the team.
Offer guidance on communicating with the bereaved employee, reminding everyone that they are under a lot of emotional stress right now and should not be contacted about work-related issues under any circumstances while they are on leave.
If you were able to get a sense of what the family would prefer, relay that information to your team. Do they prefer having a meal delivered over flowers? Encourage your team to reach out to the designated point of contact—a friend or coworker with who the person may have a friendly relationship—if they’re not sure what would be an appropriate gesture.
It would be best to send out this information via email to everyone in your team, HR, and even people who don’t necessarily interact with the bereaved employee daily, but who should be aware of the information.
Giving your employees guidance on what to say and what not to say to their grieving coworker can be helpful for everyone.
This email can include suggestions, who to contact, whether or not coworkers are invited to the funeral, links to appropriate gifts to send to the family, etc. It should also include instructions for who to contact instead of the person on leave for any correspondence related to their work responsibilities.
While nobody should contact the grieving employee with work-related emails, do let people know whether it would be ok to send their condolences via email.
If you need to rearrange workflow tasks, update everyone on the team as soon as possible. Try to be as straightforward as possible when you communicate the new plan of action.
Most importantly, express your gratitude to your team for being flexible during this period.
After sending a group email, follow up with individuals to make sure they are feeling clear about their new responsibilities or adjustments.
Thank them for understanding that they may have to take on some of the absent person’s responsibilities, but reassure them that you will make sure that this extra work will be within reason and temporary.
While your employees will ultimately make this decision on their own, providing some guidance on what to say and what not to say to the grieving employee can be helpful.
People often don’t know what to say to someone who just experienced a loss and will be grateful for guidance.
Be open to hard conversations
As the situation is a collaborative effort, let your employees know that you are open to their feedback—ultimately, this will help them feel more comfortable and help you streamline the bereavement protocol for the future.
Since some people may feel hesitant to speak up, offer an option for anonymous feedback as well.
The bottom line: this is a difficult situation for the whole team, and everyone will be looking to you for the next steps.
Nobody is perfect in these situations. Acting with empathy and understanding is more important than implementing the perfect plan on the first try.
Stress to your team that this is a group effort, and that you are grateful for their cooperation.
Your flexibility and effort to make this new situation work for everyone will be greatly appreciated and remembered.
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