Coronavirus: How HR can help after the death of an employee

When an employee dies, HR needs to ensure that the news is communicated sensitively and managers support their teams as they grieve. This will be more difficult than ever during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. Jo Faragher shares some expert guidance.

There is not a single workplace that has not been touched by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. But as the number of deaths rises, it becomes increasingly likely that HR will have to support staff grieving the deaths of family members, or that employees themselves may die.

Communicating the news of a colleague's death is difficult in any circumstances, for HR and managers alike, but in these times of heightened anxiety, sensitivity is more important than ever. A survey by market researchers Opinium recently found that 47% of UK adults felt their mental wellbeing had been affected by the coronavirus outbreak, with one in three (35%) overwhelmed by the news.

Communicating the death of an employee

"Good practice in normal times would be for a counsellor to go on site, perhaps run a group session for managers to help them support staff and further sessions for colleagues," says Colin Grange, a counselling psychologist from Foundation Psychological Services. "In these circumstances, we try to follow best practice but adapt it where we're not physically on site, for example by running virtual group sessions over platforms such as Zoom. It's not as effective as being in a group, but mirrors how communications are changing anyway. We're all using these tools more and more."

Dr Amy Bradley of Hult Ashridge Executive Education and author of The Human Moment, says that any communications regarding a death should be driven by the family, so it would be advisable to ask how they would prefer the news to be shared. "They should feel in control of how the death is communicated to the business rather than the employer second-guessing what is appropriate," she says.

The channel for communication will also depend on what is expected in that organisation's culture - for HR or a senior manager to send an all-staff email may seem callous but staggering the news another way could mean some individuals or groups hear before others. HR professionals should also be mindful that the news may already have been shared on family and friends' social media platforms, says Birgit Lundgren, clinical services director at Validium, a psychological services and employee assistance programme provider. "Social media can be three steps ahead of the organisation, so they're not in control of the message," she says.

Allowing opportunities to grieve

The challenges of dealing with workplace bereavement in the current climate are not only about physical distance: everyone is experiencing changes to the way they live and work, and that could make the grieving process tougher. "We all have protective layers we use to manage difficult situations and to contain our own emotions," says Lundgren. "But this is a situation no-one has been in before, so we don't have those resources to call on. Everyone is facing their own mortality, thinking 'this could be me or my family'."

Psychotherapist Julia Samuels, author of This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings, points out that managers need support in these situations too. "They are under enormous pressures - facing a loss of security and looking for ways to support themselves. They need help so they can better support their team," she says.

One way managers can help workers to come to terms with the loss is to try to create a "safe space" where employees can talk to one another without physically coming together, suggests Dr Bradley. This could be through allowing 10 minutes "off agenda" time at the start of video conference meetings, for example. Ensuring employees know that they can discuss how they feel on a one-to-one basis is crucial - some will not feel comfortable sharing emotions in a team situation or will hide how they are feeling to give an impression they are coping. Be mindful too, that employees will still go through a varying range of emotions at different speeds, including anger and guilt.

Grange adds: "People may get a sense of 'survivor syndrome'; guilt that it affected someone else rather than them, others become angry as a way of dealing with the loss. They may even be thinking 'when did I last meet them, did they give it to me?' and feeling guilt about that."

This is especially true in organisations employing key workers, whether that's staff in frontline services, such as hospitals, or employees in supermarkets and other essential services. Christine Husbands, managing director of RedArc Nurses, says it's important to remember that some of these workers are operating "outside their scope of practice and training as well as very long hours and witnessing very distressing situations". Because of their greater potential exposure to the virus, the death of a colleague may exacerbate their own fear, particularly as they still have to work and will not have time to grieve.

Husbands adds: "If possible, arrangements such as clinical supervision, mentor support and critical incident debriefs should be carried out. Within the NHS, the mental wellbeing of staff, particularly at this time, is a high priority with additional support available to enable staff to get help at an early stage. Peer support is very important within the medical profession and employees should be encouraged to draw on this as much as possible to help one another through." External support from tools such as employee assistance programmes or counselling services should be signposted, she says.

From a practical perspective, Amy Green, Cruse Bereavement Care operations manager, advises employers to contact the family, not only to offer condolences but to set up an agreed point of contact for questions they may have about pay or pension arrangements. "Practical points like (digital) books of condolence should be considered by managers and clearly communicated to the wider workforce," she says. "There may be appropriate ways of commemorating the person who has died and of marking key dates; the family should be consulted about these. How an organisation deals with events such as this will usually define their culture and the attachment that employees generally have to the organisation."

In the meantime, if someone has been affected by the death of a colleague or one of their own family members from coronavirus, expectations about the return to work - even remotely - need to be managed, particularly as staff may not be as visible so it will be difficult to tell if they are not coping. "Organisations will have different policies on bereavement and compassionate leave and will need to work out what 'coming back' to work means for each employee," advises Lundgren for Validium. "It will be different for, say, a supermarket worker to someone working from home."

Frontline workers may simply be too busy to stop and absorb their grief, so a physical debrief or face-to-face psychological support may need to wait until the peak of the pandemic subsides, adds Lundgren. Homeworkers should be reminded of any online support mechanisms and managers need to check in with them often, following usual policies but ensuring employees "get time to come to terms with what happened", Lundgren says.

Compassionate leadership

Whether it's in person or remotely, "compassionate leadership" will make all the difference, says Dr Bradley from Hult Ashridge Executive Education. Compassionate leaders have four key qualities in the current climate, she believes:

  • they notice things and have "antennae" that detect whether team members are struggling;
  • they are understanding and non-judgmental of employees' different situations and experiences of loss;
  • they have the capacity to step into others' shoes; and
  • they take action.

"Compassion is about the gestures and actions we take to support people, and these can be misguided if we don't at first understand the individual," she says.

In more typical circumstances, managers might be trained to understand the varying impacts of bereavement on people and how that changes over time, adds Husbands from RedArc. If that has not been possible, however, the important thing is that managers are flexible and discreet with grieving colleagues and that they check in with them regularly.

Coming to terms with loss

In many workplaces, the grieving process may be suspended until colleagues are physically back together in the workplace. With restrictions on how many people can attend funerals, it is unlikely staff will have been able to say goodbye to their colleague in person, and physical mementos such as a book of condolence will not have been possible during times of social distancing restrictions.

Green at Cruse Bereavement Care says there are ways employees can celebrate their colleague's life without physically coming together. Video conferencing could be a way to share memories or discuss plans for when colleagues are able to get together. "Rituals are really important within the grieving process and things like sharing pictures, playing some of the person's favourite music, writing a message to them, lighting a candle can all be ways to remember the person's life together," she says.

"There is also the option of holding a digital memorial or creating a digital condolences book. It is important to remember that we will not be under these restrictions forever. At some future point you may be able to hold a formal or informal memorial to those who have died."