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Serious Illness, Death and Grieving in the Workplace

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Effects on Individuals

If you are a faculty or staff member working in a department where a colleague has been recently diagnosed with a serious illness or has died, you might be experiencing a number of feelings over the days and weeks. Strong personal bonds are often formed within work groups, and the experience of coping with serious illness or grieving the death of a colleague can be profound. The intensity of reactions will vary among individuals, but the following experiences are common:

Numbness  |  Shock  |  Disbelief  |  Anxiety  |  Lack of concentration  |  Memory lapses  |  Sleep disturbances  |  Fatigue  |  Change in eating habits  |  irritability  |  Sadness  |  Tearfulness  |  Headaches  |  Muscle tension  |  Stomach ache  |  Frustration  |  Depression  |  Emptiness

Coping Strategies

Be Aware of Each Other

If it appears that someone is having a serious problem coping with the death, express concern and encourage them to seek professional assistance through the Faculty Staff Help Center or other resources (see list below).

Accept That Work May be Affected

You and your colleagues job performance and interactions may be affected by the stress. In time, things will return to normal. If the death is suicide, homicide, unexpected or occurred in the workplace, the emotional trauma experienced may be more severe and the need for outside help will be greater.

Contact the Family of the Deceased

Consider sending cards, flowers or other gifts, such as a book of memories written by the staff, to a surviving spouse or child.

Attend or Organize a Memorial Service

Whether conducted on or off the work site, a memorial service can be another important step for acknowledging feelings and coming to terms with the death.

Tips for Managers and Supervisors

When employees are affected by the death of a co-worker, personal loss, or serious illness, managers and supervisors are faced with the challenge of ensuring that employees are adequately supported while work responsibilities are being met. The following suggestions are intended to help supervisors when these difficult situations arise.

Issues in the Workplace

If you are a manager or a supervisor — and your staff experiences the diagnosis of a serious illness or death of a colleague — you might observe the following work-related issues with your staff:

  • Difficulties with productivity
  • Issues with attendance
  • Shock, anxiety and confusion

As a manager or supervisor, it is your responsibility to use sensitivity and tact when overseeing the following necessary tasks following the death of a staff member:

  • Proper allocation of any possessions
  • Reassignment of the workspace
  • Delegation of job responsibilities

And, as a manager or supervisor, you should know that:

  • There may be feelings of guilt, resentment or uneasiness for staff members who assume roles previously handled by the deceased staff member
  • Certain work situations may serve as reminders of the loss, and may trigger grief reactions unexpectedly
  • The emotional environment at work will be changed for a period of time, and everyone will have their own unique reaction to the loss
  • Your role in acknowledging and discussing the impact of the death can help with the grieving process
  • You can offer guidance and support by pointing staff members in the direction of individual counseling services
  • You can contact the Faculty Staff Help Center and arrange for facilitators to lead group discussions with your staff

Helping a Grieving Faculty or Staff Member

  • Be sensitive and straightforward. Create an atmosphere of open communication for everyone. Make contact with the grieving employee as soon as possible.
  • It is important to acknowledge their grief and loss openly, even though it may feel awkward to initiate a conversation. Feel free to share a caring reaction to their loss while being sensitive to the confidential nature of personal or medical information.
  • Expect to do more listening than talking. Patience, compassion optimism and availability are helpful qualities to demonstrate. Be sure to ask what you can share and what is confidential, and ask about specific things you can do to help.
  • Don't be surprised if the employee needs to talk about the loss many times, especially during holidays and anniversaries, which may be very difficult. It is common for people who have experienced a loss to exhibit periodic tears, low spirits and uneven productivity for a while.
  • Grief can last quite a while. Don't expect a quick recovery. The process is different for everyone. The supervisor's job is to create an accepting environment, where the process of grieving is treated as normal, yet work still gets done. If an individual seems to be slipping into depression and you are concerned about the level or severity of their reaction, the Faculty Staff Help Center (FSHC) is a good place to go for consultation, or to refer the employee.
  • In cases of loss from suicide, homicide, workplace death, or death of a child, reactions are normally quite severe and you can advise the employee about the usefulness of individual counseling and support groups. The FSHC can provide brief counseling services and make referrals to suitable groups and therapists in the community.

In the Case of Serious Illness

  • Become familiar with the health status, capabilities and medical restrictions of the affected employee that affects their work, and make reasonable accommodations. Realize there may be periods of absenteeism or hospitalization to stabilize their condition. Be watchful that people don't exceed their limitations. It is helpful to consult with Human Resources about leave guidelines and adjusting job responsibilities.
  • Respect privacy, but encourage the affected employee to share with you whatever information they feel comfortable sharing about their illness or other problems, and direct them to appropriate resources when necessary.
  • Be realistic when discussing plans about work. The Faculty Staff Help Center, Human Resources and the Benefits Office can help with planning for returning to work or leaving the workplace. Everyone benefits when employees maintain a sense of self-esteem, identity and integrity as long as possible.

When a Faculty or Staff Member Dies

  • Meet with your staff to clarify the facts, talk about feelings and acknowledge the grieving process. Unanticipated deaths may require additional times to talk. Faculty Staff Help Center counselors are available to facilitate meetings where feelings are particularly strong. In cases of suicide, homicide, or a death that occurred at work, debriefing the staff may be particularly important. Decisions about the deceased person's work space, belongings and job responsibilities will need to discussed and handled sensitively.
  • Notify your Human Resources Officer and the Benefits Office. The Stanford Report is available to handle the public notice of the death.
  • It is important that employees know of memorial or funeral arrangements and have time to attend. Appropriate acknowledgment of the employee who died is important. A tribute in the newspaper, a charitable donation, a gift to the family, or some other public acknowledgment might be discussed with the staff.

Helping Other Staff Members

  • When possible, ensure that your staff knows the facts about what happened and about funeral or memorial plans. Mention that there are resources available within the organization and the community to help cope during stressful times.
  • Mutual support and sharing among the staff should be encouraged, as well as expressions of grief and sympathy to families and loved ones. Sometimes it is valuable to have one employee volunteer to be the primary on-site contact with the family.
  • In very difficult situations such as suicide, homicide, or a workplace death, shock, disbelief, fear and confusion are common. Open discussion can help clarify the facts, dispel rumors and facilitate the grieving process. Faculty Staff Help Center counselors are available to lead group discussions.
  • If the grief affects many staff members, it may take some time for things to return to business as usual. It may be impossible for some employees to work at their normal level of productivity, at least temporarily. Co-workers who take on extra workloads during such a transition should be appreciated and acknowledged.


Stanford Resources

Web Resources for Grief and Serious Illness


Local Support and Counseling

Other Resources