Discussing death in the workplace

When we go into organisations to run employee focus groups the discussions can be diverse, but usually within a discernible framework. We discuss communication, work/life balance, stress and well being, productivity, roles and workloads etc.

However, one of the biggest life issues is rarely (if ever) discussed.  What about death?  What happens when someone suffers a bereavement, do colleagues know how best to cope and support someone?  What about if a colleague dies – how do we help other colleagues come to terms with this?

Now I am not suggesting we throw in another section into the staff survey – but perhaps organisations should be considering ways to enable employees to talk about death and grief – in a professionally facilitated safe environment – because at the end of the day, the biggest disruption to a person’s life and work is likely to be a bereavement, and when it is a colleague who dies, there are added complications that emotionally and practically impact on colleagues.

A couple of years ago, whilst I was working at a Hospice, a member of our small team died unexpectedly. I guess if any organisation can cope with a death at work, then it’s a hospice, after all we are used to talking about death, but it wasn’t easy at all. There are so many waves caused by a death of a colleague, who may mean many things to different people. A friend, confidante, boss, team member -someone who has been part of the structure of everyday life.  As with any death, this can also remind colleagues of other bereavements, it can knock the wind out of you even if you weren’t close to the person.

On a practical level – how do you come to terms with the inevitable changes that have to occur to cover workload? How can this be done without causing more distress for the team? How can it be done with respect for the lost colleague? How do the team cope with the new member who has been appointed into the vacant post? How does this new member feel coming into the team?

Many organisations have on site counsellors or subscribe to a workplace counselling service (EAP)– which is hugely helpful, but referrals to this are done at times of crisis and there is surely a gap to introduce some well being initiatives that help create opportunities to discuss the big life issues and to help equip employees to better cope with death and grief.

A lot of money is spent on team building and training events to promote productivity and creativity. More spent on staff surveys and focus groups to understand what aspects of the organisation are working well and which need improving.  But perhaps amongst all of this, organisations need to invest some money and time to develop a structure and organisation that is just a little more equipped to support the workforce through the practical and emotional journey of bereavement. There are not many certainties in life and work but one thing that grounds us all and affects us all and will happen to us all – is death and grief.

 

Some useful conversation starters

 

Books

  • Grief is the thing with feathers. Max Porter
  • With the end in mind: How to live well and die well. Kathryn Mannix
  • Last Orders. Graham Swift
  • Grief Works, stories of life, death and surviving. Julia Samuel
  • The way we die now. Seamus O’Mahony

 

TV/film

  • Afterlife. Ricky Gervais. 
  • Six Feet Under (HBO  TV series – ended in 2005 but well worth revisiting as a box set)
  • What we did on our holiday. (Irish film starring Billy Connolly, released in 2014 available on DVD)

 

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