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How to deal with a workplace tragedy

We often spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our family and experiencing the successes and failures of the working day bind us together.

In this time of pandemic our lives are under threat like we have never known and we have learned that tragedy takes many forms – not just in our personal lives but our working lives also.

Our workplace can have a comfortable predictability, even with the highs and lows of the next deal or challenging client. So, when we experience a tragedy in the workplace, how can we navigate it together, come through the other side and still keep a focus on the work that has to continue?

Be prepared …

Be in front and be prepared. Have a bereavement support policy in place which addresses legal requirements and your individual company guidance. It may help to offer employees the opportunity to have a say in the creation of the policy. Have regular discussions about the policy and ensure everyone is familiar with it, so that they are already aware of the expectation both ways and this helps tremendously by removing any unnecessary worry or misinterpretation at a time when the workplace is pre-occupied with the loss.

Whatever form the tragedy takes, whether it is a death that has been expected following a long illness or a sudden accident in the workplace, losing a colleague throws the work environment out of sync and it will take time before a sense of balance can be restored. People can benefit greatly from having an opportunity to be able to say out loud how it has made them feel.

Respect each individual reaction …

Grief and our grief reactions are incredibly personal. We each experience our losses based upon our own learnings and past experiences.  Our reaction to any tragedy is unique to ourselves and even though we may share similar emotions with others, there is no ‘one size fits all’ reaction or solution.

The importance of listening…

In conversation we are generally comparing our experiences and thinking about what we are going to say next in return, instead of fully listening to the words that are being spoken to us. When we are speaking about how something has made us feel, we need others to listen without comment, comparison or interruption. We also need to honour others with the same respect.  It may be helpful to all sit down together as a group to allow this or some may prefer the privacy of talking one to one.

One of the healthiest things to do is to allow each person to share their feelings about the event without any element of judgement and without someone hijacking their experience by comparing it to their own. Let people speak, thank them for sharing and move on to the next person.

Appoint a group leader who can offer a few words of reflection or prayer and can then set the scene for sharing and who will be the first to talk about how the tragedy or loss has made them feel personally. It also provides an opportunity to say what their colleague has meant to them and what they will miss about their usual routines

Have some ground rules in place ….

  • Take it in turns to speak and do not interrupt when someone is talking. If someone just wants to listen and reflect rather than share openly, respect this and don’t draw attention to it.
  • Equally, if someone cries when they are speaking, do not try and change how they are feeling. Just as smiling and laughing are a natural reaction when we are happy, tears are a normal and natural reaction to our shock and sadness.

Let the tears flow …

  • Although it’s hard, try not to touch someone who is crying – crying is a chemical reaction that needs to be allowed to happen. Emotional tears contain stress hormones which is why it is important for the body to get rid of them. The tears release an endorphin that immediately reduces pain and stress. Touching someone who is crying, breaks the emotion and brings the person back into the present moment, and drives the pain and sadness back down inside.
  • Men have tear ducts too but as they are more socially conditioned to solve problems, they are often less able to express their feelings of grief.
  • Remember – tears are part of the healing, not hurting. Crying helps to reduce some of the weight of grief.
  • When someone has finished sharing, let the group leader thank them for sharing but don’t try and analyse or make sense of their words. When someone is talking about how they feel, they aren’t looking for endorsement or even advice. They are making a statement. They are having a one way conversation and you should just be the ears they can trust.
  • Healing takes so many forms, and sometimes just being with people who will listen without comparison or comment and who just accept our words, can be the hugest dose of medicine.

The group leader could perhaps organise a collection of donations or flowers and a card for the family. A lovely idea is to create an office memory book to present to the family in which everyone can write down their personal message or their favourite memory. This can be something very special, especially if the career or work was very important to the person. It will also be therapeutic for those writing down their thoughts.

Also, raising funds for a charity is another great way of coming together and uniting and can give a feeling of being pro-active through our grief.

Ongoing support …

Have an appointed ‘go to’ person if someone is struggling and needs support. Watch out for any  signs that someone may not be coping well – their time keeping may become poor, loss of care in personal appearance, over/under-eating, signs of alcohol/substance abuse, isolating themselves from the people they would normally interact with. If you feel that an employee is struggling, be a safe place for them to talk to without judgement or criticism. Work with them to help them though it. Offer what help you can and if you feel it necessary recommend a bereavement specialist or some counselling.

Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ

This article was published online at www.newbusiness.co.uk

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