Workplace Doctor: Dealing with loss of a team member

A member of the team is terminally ill and the staff are struggling to deal with the fact we are about to lose a much-loved team member. This individual has worked for us for seven years and still pops in occasionally to put in a couple of hours here and there. How should I help them cope with their grief when the inevitable happens? WI, Dubai

Loss of any kind, be it a family member, friend or colleague, is a deeply troubling event that sadly all of us will have to experience at some point in our lives. I have lost a close colleague in the past and also have had to deal with a family bereavement that was entangled with my professional life. I remember finding out on the first day of a high-profile stress management workshop I was leading for senior government leaders in London that one of my closest uncles had passed away. The emotion of the situation was inescapable, but in a way the three-day programme allowed me to focus my attention elsewhere and the personal pain did not really hit me until the course finished. Upon returning home, emotions came crashing, and the impact of doing this for just three days was completely overwhelming.

Bereavement is one of the most devastating things any of us will have to go through. For many managers it can be difficult to know how to respond when an employee is bereaved, yet even more complex when the bereavement is shared and your team will collectively mourn the loss. To deal with this, compassion is required from the outset. Research has found that 56 per cent of employees (out of a survey of 4,000) would consider leaving their job if they were not treated with compassion after a loss. Therefore, it is a manager’s greatest resource during such difficult times.

Firstly, I would suggest that preparation for when the inevitable does happen is crucial. As the team manager, you need to plan the support that will be provided for team members, as well as what support can be offered to the family of your colleague. It could be that collectively you attend the funeral service or start a collection that can be given to the family.

Have a look at what other organisations do. In some companies, it is common practice to pay for groceries and necessities, or fund childcare for a given period, to ease the financial burden on the family and show how important this person was for the company.

The reaction I received from colleagues upon returning to work after my loss renewed my faith in the strength and support of my organisation. It proved to me that spending 40 hours a week with people makes separating your personal life from your private almost impossible, and colleagues can provide a fantastic support network if we allow them to. One person from my team even took the day off to come with me to my uncle’s funeral, even though they had never met him before.

As well as showing compassion for your colleague and their family, showing compassion to your team members is also incredibly important. You may, for example, find that people are affected by grief in different ways. Learn to understand the stages of grief. They run from denial and anger to bargaining, depression and acceptance. It is important to recognise that each person grieves in a very different way and at different speeds. Take this into account and don’t expect all of your team to react in the same way at the same time.

When preparing for the loss, remember that this individual who is terminally ill and still popping in to do some work may be gaining strength from spending time with well-loved colleagues and is glad to be able to make a small contribution. Support this for as long as he is well enough to continue. When he can’t keep up any more, take turns within your team to visit him and don’t be afraid to update him on the office, no matter how trivial. It could be the only break he gets away from his illness.

Doctors prescription:

The collective impact of death on a team should not be underestimated. Compassion, sensitivity and understanding are required to support each other through the impending loss of this much-loved member. Extending the support of the organisation towards the family will also show how much this person means. Equally, for the little time you have left with them, let them feel the love the team has for them.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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