· Features

Preparing for the worst: dealing with the death of an employee

Death is never an easy subject to deal with at any level or anytime.

From experience as a police officer I know some people spotting friends/colleagues recently bereaved would cross the road hoping to avoid being seen rather than stop and speak to them and engaging in awkward conversation.

Just under two thousand people a year die on the roads, approximately 800 are murdered, around 170 die in the workplace and countless thousands die through natural causes.

Losing a loved one, be it expected through illness or as a result of a traumatic incident can be devastating and have far reaching consequences including in the workplace. The stages of grieving can manifest themselves in ways you perhaps wouldn't expect. A colleague has lost a relative, we give them a 'few weeks' to come to terms with their loss, and then expect them to get on with it and return to normal.

Do we notice the drinking, the moods, the anger, the mistakes, and the tiredness? An employee dies at home from illness, do we - or how do we - inform the staff? Do we put a plan into place for those who worked closely with the deceased? How do we manage the workload and desk clearing process? Who will speak with the family? Who will empty the locker and take the contents back to them?

A worker dies in the workplace. What are our priorities? Is it the media, shareholders, the workers colleagues, the investigation? Who will go to the inquest? What is the inquest really about?

Many of you reading this will have experienced bereavement. I'm sure many have dealt with the death of an employee and done so in a professional and empathetic manner. But did you get it right? A friend related a story about the death of an employee recently who had died during the Christmas holidays. The business had not notified staff before Christmas day for what may have been perceived to be the right reasons. Unfortunately the funeral took place and on their return to work and hearing of the news many were angry at being denied the opportunity to attend the funeral. Staff engagement became a big issue as they perceived the company not to care about their feelings. The obvious knock on is decrease in productivity, trust, sense of being valued and disengagement.

Every day workers die. Would you be able to say you handled the death in the best way possible? Does your business have a well considered and informed policy in place? The Police spend weeks training and developing staff to understand how to work with bereaved people, issues around language used, explaining the investigation processes, the coronial system, all of which can prevent the family from continuing along the grieving process. In the past many forces have seen the consequences of getting it wrong with the family both from a reputational and financial perspective but also from the causing of secondary trauma, unnecessary turmoil and pain. The police will still get it wrong on occasions, but with effective training, policy and processes now in place these incidents are more and more uncommon. Can your business afford to get it wrong?

I would argue that the needs of the business and the family can still be met with a little thought and planning before the event. It does not take pages of figures showing costs/profits to realise that investing in staff is a sound investment. Similarly dealing with the death of staff correctly will be not only be a morally sound investment, but a financial one too.

Jeff Goodright was an investigation and family liason officer, now specialising in training. He is organising a seminar on Preparing for the worst: dealing with the death of an employee at the Nigeria Conference and Leisure Centre in Sheffield on 15 May, along with Anne Eyre, a sociologist specialising in stress, trauma and disaster management along with Chris Dorries, the Coroner for Sheffield and Barnsley and author of Coroners Courts a Guide to Law and Practice.