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Grief after death in the workplace

People go to work expecting “business as usual” and to go home at the end of the day to their families. The last thing they expect is for a co-worker to die in the workplace, from natural causes, or as a result of a tragic event.

When a death does occur in the workplace, worksites are often thrown into chaos. If the death occurred as a result of an industrial incident, fire, murder, or similar tragic incident, workers have to deal with a range of issues in addition to shock and the loss of a work mate. These issues generally relate to concerns about how and why the situation occurred and often result in feelings of anger, guilt, fears for personal safety and a need for someone or something to blame.

Supporting workplace colleagues

Management may have little or no experience in dealing with the grief of families and workmates after a work-related death. Many people do not know what to do or say in such circumstances. Thoughtful gestures of sympathy and compassion, even when at a loss for the ‘right’ thing to say are usually appreciated and leave a lasting impression of goodwill and caring.

Regardless of the cause of death, it is helpful if management:

  • send a clear, simple message of support to staff to help them recover from the event
  • have an “open door” to staff
  • provide a qualified counselling service

Management may be affected too, so involving professional help can also act as a point of advice and support for them.

Staff may also be helped to deal with their grief by:

  • organizing activities in remembrance of their dead colleague
  • having time off to attend the funeral
  • holding a special ceremony at the workplace
  • taking up a collection for the family
  • planting a tree on-site
  • establishing some other memorial
  • putting a tribute in the newspaper

For other workers, simply getting on with standard routines, and avoiding any special activities related to the death, may be the best way of putting the event behind them.

Workplace and the family

After a death in the workplace, the family are likely to appreciate having management make contact with them without delay. Management can also be available to answer any questions, or to give help to the family, in the early days after the death.

It is important for there to be good communication between the workplace and the family. It may be helpful for one senior person, or a person who knows the family well, to be made the contact point in the workplace. This person can talk to the family about what they want, and how best to achieve it, while also meeting the needs of the company and its workforce.

Some families may wish to have contact with the workplace. They may wish to see the site of the death, or to offer thanks to co-workers who helped their loved one. Similarly, having direct contact with the family may be helpful and positive for some workers, but for others, it is likely to be avoided due to the painful memories it may bring. Whether there is direct contact or not, workers are often interested to know how the family are coping since the death, and what the company is doing to support them.

Legal and other issues

It can be helpful for a management plan to be in place to assist in responding effectively to a workplace death. The investigation of a work-related death can involve a number of legal, judicial and statutory authorities in determining what happened, such as South Australia Police, SafeWork SA, workplace insurance agents and the coroner, and it may be important for all parties to be prepared for this and to understand the authorities’ different roles, responsibilities and processes.

Families affected by the death of a family member in the workplace should consult with the deceased’s employer and the claims agent responsible for managing the death claim.

Access to compensation and other entitlements such as services is dependent on the acceptance of a completed Workcover claim, and in some cases may be limited to the worker to whom the claim relates. For this reason consultation with the employer and the claims agent is essential.

A worker witnessing a fatal accident should consult with their employer to determine what arrangements the employer may have made for critical incident debriefing or counselling services. Where the worker lodges a claim for workers compensation the worker should consult with the relevant claims agent responsible for managing their claim.

Other resources

Beyond Blue


Page last updated: 9 December, 2019

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