Dealing with the death of an employee

Accepting the death of an employee can be difficult for both you and your other employees. Here are a few suggestions to help you adjust with as little disruption to your business as possible.

With SMEs usually having a small staff, the environment becomes quite intimate and your employees often feel like an extended family. So it's not surprising that a worker's death can sometimes be very difficult to deal with, particularly if the death was sudden and tragic. You may also experience feelings of anxiety and guilt if the death occurred in the workplace, or your last interaction with the person was not pleasant. And even if the passing is the result of a prolonged illness, you may still experience shock and depression when the news arrives.

The emotional impact

How a person copes with loss depends on many factors, from our personal beliefs to the presence of other stressors in our lives. For some employees, thoughts of the deceased may make it hard to focus on work for a while. Others may find it difficult to get back on track, resulting in mistakes that can disrupt the organisation's functioning.

In a production or manufacturing environment, preoccupation with a co-worker's death may present safety hazards for those operating equipment, performing intricate operations, or monitoring product quality. 

In more extreme cases of stress, a co-worker's death may make you or your staff members tense and irritated, adding to what may already be a stressful work environment and creating new problems elsewhere in your life.

What you can do 

Grief is a natural process that takes time. If you or your employees are having difficulty accepting a co-worker's death, a qualified grief counsellor can help you adjust to the loss. Encourage employees to seek the help of a counsellor or their clergy. 

You may also find these suggestions helpful:

  • Share your feelings. Your other workers may be experiencing the same feelings you are. Mutual support can help everyone get though the grieving process
  • Take advantage of grief counselling or other services. Experienced counsellors can offer the support and structure necessary to help individuals and groups come to terms with a loss and make appropriate plans for memorials, gestures of condolences to family members
  • Plan ahead. Establish protocols for responding to a worker's death. Issues to consider include sharing information, handling personal effects, allowing time off for funerals, and reassigning space or equipment

Coming to terms with the death of an employee and colleague can be difficult. Ignoring the situation can result in more "down-time" than is necessary.

Important numbers

The organisations below offer free telephonic counselling and other mental health support services:

  • Lifeline: 0861 322 322
  • The South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group: 011 262 6396

Put measures in place to help you and your staff deal with the loss and help you move on. Visit the resource section of this category for more details on these and other organisations that can help.

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