11 Tips About How to Deal With Tragedy in Your Workplace

Both National and Local Tragedies Affect the Workplace and Your Response

Colleagues stay up-to-date on the latest national tragedy while at work.
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For Americans and many around the world, the Kennedy assassinations, the Challenger and Columbia shuttle explosions, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bombing of the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the mass shooting in Las Vegas and other mass shootings are high on the list of America’s incomprehensible tragedies.

Personal Tragedies Affect Workplaces

In your workplaces, more personal tragedies also occur regularly. Coworkers and their family members die. Customers file for bankruptcy and leave hundreds unemployed. Manufacturing plants burn down. Friends are diagnosed with terminal illnesses. An incident of workplace violence leaves coworkers dead.

While not as riveting and all-encompassing as the major, national tragedies, the more personal, closer-to-home tragedies and the national, bigger-than-life tragedies have much in common for people in workplaces.

National Tragedies Affect Workplaces

To start, you frequently find out about national tragedies while you are at work. You gather with coworkers and watch the national news unfold on televisions and computer screens. You gather in groups and talk about the event.

Who can ever forget where you were when the Challenger space shuttle explosion killed Christa McAuliffe and her six crewmates? Same with the planes flying into the World Trade Center and the assassination of President Kennedy? You know where you were when you learned about these events that are indelibly etched in your mind.

In these circumstances, employees share information and talk incessantly. They reach out to understand how the tragedy is affecting their associates. Coworkers look out for each other. As an example, many of you watched the planes crash into the World Trade Center while at work.

More Personal Work Tragedies Affect Your Employees Deeply

With the more personal tragedies, your actions and wishes are likely less public, but there is that same sense of wanting to do something to help and not knowing what to do.

In most instances, for positive mental health, coworkers reach out to each other for friendship and support. Sometimes, it's the personal tragedies about which you feel the most inadequate. After all, they are occurring right here—and you feel like you should be able to help.

A national tragedy or a personal tragedy has a huge impact in the workplace. And, organizations can help people successfully weather the tragedy. They can ease the passage people experience during a tragedy. They can help people deal with the helplessness and grief they experience. They can provide a support system to help prop people up during grief.

These ideas will help you help your employees as they experience either a national tragedy or the regular, life-changing tragedies that occur within your own workplace.

Recommended Actions During Tragedy in Your Workplace

1. Make Sure People Are Safe

If the incident is happening in your workplace, make certain people are safe before you do anything else. Implement your disaster plan, ring the fire alarm, do whatever your company emergency evacuation plan prescribes for safety. The plan should designate a meeting location, where attendance can be taken, so you know the members of your workforce are safe.

2. Cut People Some Slack

People cannot return to productive work immediately upon hearing about a tragedy. If you expect them to continue working, people will make errors and mistakes because they are distracted by the events or information. Don't pretend. Just tell people that it is all right to focus their energy on the happening. If you do this, most individuals will return to productive work more quickly when their need for information and interests are satisfied.

3. Assess the Personal Involvement of Employees

If the tragedy impacts an individual personally, offer release time, support, a ride, help obtaining information, and anything else the individual appears to need. For major and direct impacts on your workplace, you may need to decide whether to continue paying employees, even though they are not working, for a period of time. You may offer shelter, relocation, or other forms of compensation during a tragedy, too.

4. Give People Information

If you can do so without totally disrupting work, provide televisions and computer screens so workers are informed about events as they unfold—even if only in break rooms. In more personal tragedies, give all employees as much information as possible, as soon as the information is available. (This does not mean providing employee confidential information, but other information is essential.)

Information helps people process the events. Turn on radios, broadcast breaking news over your speaker system and recognize that people will call friends and acquaintances to share information and compare notes. The closer you are to the tragedy, the more people will want to know.

5. Provide Places for People to Gather and Talk

Many people take comfort in being close to other people when tragedy strikes. You can informally provide opportunities for this interaction by leaving conference rooms with televisions unused. Wheel the television into a break room. Bring in lunch for your staff so people are encouraged to spend time with each other for encouragement, shared grief, and support.

Suggest a potluck lunch for the second or third day, depending on the nature of the tragedy. Many people talk incessantly during a tragic event; others suffer silently. You will want to draw your silent people out when possible. Central gatherings will help.

6. Schedule a Meeting to Share Information

In a national tragedy, people want to know the latest information about what is happening. They want reassurances that they and their loved ones are safe. In more personal workplace sorrows, correct information is also important.

Without breaking the confidentiality of the people involved, and with their permission, tell people as much as you can. The more legitimate information people have, the less likely they are to depend on rumors and gossip, the less time they spend seeking information.

7. Give People Something to Do to Help

In times of sorrow, when people draw together for sustenance, many want something to do to help solve the problem or to ease the situation. In the instance of the terrorist attack on America, stories of volunteerism, sharing of food and space, giving blood and helping out neighbors and friends abounded. The same kind of stories dominated the Gulf Coast residents' response to Hurricane Katrina.

People want to bring a casserole to the bereaved family, send flowers to honor the dead and the living, send memories of the employee to the family, and make donations to favorite charities.

Many companies held company meetings to bring people up-to-date and share how to donate to relief and the location of the nearest blood donor center during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example.

Others hold company raffles, with the money designated for donations to whatever disaster relief is needed; they purchase raffle items with American Express travel points and employees donate other offerings for the raffle. Many employers match the amount collected.

Some companies match employee donations up to a certain amount of dollars with a receipt from the charity. Surely, you can imagine more ways to help that are congruent with your workplace culture.

8. Make Managers and HR Staff Available

Supervisors, managers, and HR staff members are critical company members during a tragedy. In a study done years ago by the American Psychological Association, employees overwhelmingly listed personal attention from the supervisor as one of the most rewarding aspects of work.

Free up your calendars when tragedy strikes and spend time walking through the workplace and meeting with people who need support or just a listening ear. Be visibly available.

9. Offer Employee Assistance

If your company has an Employee Assistance Program or counseling available via your health plan, make sure employees know it is available for people who need it. Some programs offer counseling in the workplace. Explore possibilities.

10. Be Prepared Before Disaster or Tragedy Strikes

Every organization needs a disaster plan. You also need plans for fire, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and any other natural disaster that can occur in your area. All employees should be trained in the specifics of the plan.

Prepare people about what actions to take if they are confronted with a potential injury in the workplace. Think about whatever is likely to happen and make a plan to handle it—in advance.

11. Make Grief Training Part of Your Training Program

When tragedy strikes, people are uncertain about what to do. As an example, the spouse of a coworker dies. Close work associates attend the funeral or remembrance ceremony.

They may supply the family with food and time. When the employee returns to work after their bereavement leave, however, few fellow employees know what to do.

Should they offer sympathy or encourage the person to talk about their loss. The employee is often isolated because people don't know what to say or do, so they say and do nothing.

Teach your staff members about grief, the stages of grief, how to deal with grief in self and coworkers, how to tell children about a tragedy, and more. It will support your workplace positive morale, build employee self-confidence, and lessen the long-term impacts of tragedy.

Tragedy does happen in this world. From major national tragedies to more intimate, personal tragedies, all people experience sorrow and tragedy in their lives. Implementing these ideas will help you address those that occur or unfold in your workplace more effectively.