Tips for dealing with death in the workplace

Technology advancements means HR may no longer be the one to advise an employee of a death, so what can you do to manage the bereavement process?

News travels fast these days and it means HR can’t always be the bearer of bad news.

Finding herself on the end of a sad news phone call prompted Employ Me Now! General Manager Sarah Bond to delve into the issue with other HR professionals.

Bond said her discussions with others revealed that dealing with death before mobiles was much easier.

“The HR team and supervisors could manage how and when the news was delivered, and ensure that their employee was away from the general public and/or hazardous environments,” she said.

Now it is not uncommon for employees to find out about a death via Facebook or a call during working hours. Bond said there isn’t much HR teams can do to control this, but by thinking about how to handle the situation before it happens they can ensure they manage it effectively.

One of the most important things to start with, Bond said, is remembering everyone reacts differently to death.

“You could find your employee sitting at their desk with a thousand yard stare, they may want to leave work immediately, or they may just carry on with their day” she explained.

“Some people find anchoring themselves to the routine of work helps. You should view every case in isolation.”

Here are Bond’s tips from her personal experience to supporting an employee through a bereavement process:

  1. Be prepared: Make sure that before you are faced with the issue leave entitlements are written into your employment agreements, and there is a well-documented leave policy.* Under the Holidays Act 2003 (In New Zealand) and its associated Amendments there are two types of bereavement leave available to an employee who has had six months of continuous employment depending on their relationship to the deceased.

Most official paid leave is for three days but Bond said companies can look at whether the employee has holidays owing that they can take to extend the leave or whether unpaid leave is a possibility.

  1. Communication: Once you are aware of the incident and the employee has not already left take them somewhere private. Tell them that you are sorry for their loss and ask two key questions – What do you need? How can I help?

Try to understand how close the association was between the employee and deceased, and whether they have any special responsibilities they need to fulfil. Let them know what their leave entitlements are and that additional leave can be discussed at a later date.

If your employee is emotionally distraught consider if they are safe to drive and if there will be anyone at home to be with them when they arrive. Bond adds it is important not to counsel – “it’s best to leave that process to the experts. You can always suggest that they contact an EAP provider or Workplace support.”

  1. Business continuity: The employee agreement and company policies will dictate how much leave is available. Ask questions around whether the workload can be redistributed or a temp bought in to allow the employee more time to grieve.

If the deceased person was a member of your organisation you will also need to make provisions around staff attending the funeral.

  1. Provide support: Consider sending a bunch of flowers or sending a card from the organisation. If appropriate send a representative to the funeral – length of service and cultural considerations can dictate this decision.

Bond adds it is beneficial to your company to support your employee as it can make the employee become more loyal to the organisation.

  1. Return to work: If the employee has a stressful job that is customer facing, or works in a safety critical environment consider a gradual return to work. Once they have returned keep an eye for any signs of stress or emotional meltdown.

Bond recommends the “eyeball check” as the eyes will be a giveaway if they are not coping. If you suspect the employee is struggling offer EAP or Workplace Support.

  1. Look after yourself: Overseeing a grieving employee or workplace can be just as taxing on you. Bond said people forget that in the event of a colleague dying the HR team can be just as affected as everyone else. She recommends debriefing with a professional development overseer or an outside organisation if necessary to keep your personal wellbeing in check.

*Under The Fair Work Act, workers are entitled to paid compassionate leave when an immediate family or household member suffers an injury or illness that threatens their life or passes away. It is available for all employees except those employed casually.

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