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Tragedy at work: Four steps to help your staff cope

Shuter and Shooter Publishers, a special client of mine, experienced a tragedy last month when one of their long-serving and much-loved employees passed away.

It was a humbling experience to join the company in a morning of grief and celebration. There were tears and laughter, as you would expect from colleagues who had spent a lifetime together and were mourning a colleague who was larger than life.

It is an extraordinary company. It cares. Individuals care for each other and the management cares for their staff. People really do matter. And I learned, through their example, how to deal with tragedy and trauma in the organisation.

The death of a colleague is surely the most significant trauma to deal with, but tragedy takes many forms. Retrenchments cause far more damage to the soul of an organisation than most managers recognise. Medical boarding of a long-serving employee, a bonus that won’t materialise, a merger that threatens the culture of the organisation are similarly traumatic. Tragedies in the community, like 9/11 or a local catastrophe, also affect the organisation.

It can never be ‘business as usual’ after such events. Even if we send people back to their desks, they will not be able to concentrate. If we don’t give them space, they will shut down. Stress-related illnesses and more time off work will be the result.

I learned four things to do to when tragedy strikes at work:

Communicate

Let employees know what’s happened and what’s going on. Don’t let people hear via rumours; let them hear it from you. These are not attention-seeking children crying over nothing. And dare to let them know your own feelings, your own sense of loss, your own struggles with the situation.

I received a phone call and a WhatsApp within hours of the tragedy and later, an email went out from the CEO to all employees. Communicate.

Stop

We tend to plough ahead with a ‘show must go on’ mentality as if relentlessness is a status symbol.

There is pain and fear and uncertainty that cannot be ignored or brushed aside.

Stop.

Take time to breathe, and give employees space to process the shock.

Shuter and Shooter stopped for the morning to hold a memorial service, which provided an opportunity for reflection and sharing stories.

Listen

What are people experiencing? What do your people need? Create space for employees to talk. Listen to their pain, and dare to ask how you can help them.

Let go

You might plan a programme, but be ready to let go and let things happen. We can only create the space; people must respond in ways that make sense to them.

There are deadlines that don’t wait for tragedies and customers who are not interested in our private tears. But I have seen that allowing people space is seldom abused. Shuter’s CEO told her staff to take their time to reflect on their friend’s life and share their stories – ‘as long as you need’. Folk stayed in the hall over tea and cake, but soon they drifted back to their offices and back to work. Small groups lingered in corridors weeping and talking, but work got done.

Things will slow down for the week, no doubt. But the team will be stronger and more committed for what they have experienced. They will know that they, too, have a place in the heart of the organisation. They, too, will be missed and mourned. They, too, can make a mark. That recognition creates a commitment that money can’t buy.

Can your organisation learn to love a little, learn to give a little? Try it.

Share your experiences below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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