Tech & Work

What is the company's role in dealing with workplace trauma?

What role does a company play in the event that one of its employees dies? Should a company offer grief therapy?

Last week, I wrote about the increasing rate of workplace suicides. What statistics can't quantify is the effect of a suicide on family and friends and even co-workers.

What I'd like to talk about today is how the suicide of a co-worker affects the workplace.

Most of us spend more waking hours at work than we do at home. We may not share the deep ties with our co-workers that we do with our family, but there is a strong bond there. Companies should keep this in mind when it comes to dealing with the fallout of a death of a staff member.

I worked with a man at the same company for 8 years. We co-managed the same team for a while, then he was my boss for a while. During that time, we shared jokes and often shared the trials and tribulations about child-rearing or watching our favorite ball teams win and lose. Really nothing different than most people in workspaces across the world experience with people they spend at least 8 hours a day with.

The company for which we worked eventually relocated, which resulted in our being unemployed for a few months. I found a job with another company, and he started his own company, which struggled along for a year or so. We kept in touch, and the last I heard he was about to join the corporate ranks again and was interviewing. Then one day I got the call that he'd taken his life. Although it had been two years since we'd shared the same workplace, the news was one of the worst shocks of my life.

In a letter he left behind, he directly attributed his action to his inability to make ends meet for his family. I realize that there had to have been deeper issues than that, but it was certainly a driving force behind his action.

So should we have suspected him of something like this? No, he was very clever at hiding his true feelings. In fact, he had painstakingly planned his suicide for months and took his life the day after the suicide clause on his insurance policy expired. Ironically, the next day, his wife checked his cell phone and got a voice mail from earlier that morning from someone offering him a job he'd interviewed for and wanted.

I tell this personal story to illustrate how deeply the death of a co-worker can affect surviving members of a team. We no longer worked at the same company, so there was no formal, company-sponsored grief counseling, but I'd like to think our company would have offered that. I firmly believe that companies should have some kind of plan in place in the event of something like this or any death of a co-worker no matter the circumstances.

Research has shown that early intervention (within 24 to 72 hours after the word of the event arrives) with a group affected by a tragedy reduces the stressful impact of the news. This intervention could include group grief counseling by a qualified therapist, or even having a high-ranking company person allow the employees to gather and discuss what they're feeling. After that, the grieving process can go on as it naturally would, but I think there has to be some initial, formal recognition of the tragedy to help employees get past the shock.

Does your company offer anything like this?

About Toni Bowers

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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