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Six tips for dealing with death in the workplace

Death and taxes – both are inevitable. Taxes are one of the first things squared away when starting a new job, but when (if ever) does someone at work sit you down and talk about death?

Did you know the number of Australians that will die per year is going to double in the next 25 years? Sixty-seven per cent of employees continue working while undergoing treatment for an illness and 94 per cent of carers balance work with their personal responsibilities.

If all of this sounds a little too matter of fact to you, it’s supposed to. As Jessie Williams, CEO of the GroundSwell Project says, talking factually about death is the first step towards having a healthy outlook on the end of life.

The GroundSwell Project is a national charity known for using innovative programs to create social and cultural change around death and dying.

“Recognise it as a point of time in leadership that can be won or lost,” says Williams.

“HR has a very important role to play in supporting their managers, and how leaders respond in this time is critical. I’ve heard some bad stories of poor leadership during these times and that stuff doesn’t go away.”

The lived experience

Williams pathway to GroundSwell came from lived experience. In 2006, her baby died during labour and her workplace’s extremely positive and proactive approach to supporting her transition back to work is what encouraged her to help other organisations do the same.

“Care, compassion and kindness are micro. They’re often small things that create a sense of wholeness.”

“It was a particular kind of loss because a pregnancy is a very public thing and once you get past your three month mark, most people know about it.

“That terrible situation turned into an incredibly transformative experience for not only myself, but also for the team. They did it right. They created space for people to talk and have a reaction,” she says.

What are some of the practical steps HR can take to facilitate a positive culture around death and grieving? Williams offers the following advice:

Don’t shy away from the conversation: “Don’t avoid the staff member and don’t avoid yourself. If it causes you to have a reaction, you need to notice that and respond,” she says.

She suggests starting by asking people how the funeral was. “People ask about weddings all the time, this is just another event.”

She also emphasises the importance of saying the name of the person who has died.

“Many people are going to avoid using that person’s name but if one person can do it, it makes all the difference to the grieving person because that person is front of mind to them.”

Develop your death literacy: It’s important to give people the practical know-how of how to respond to death. This could mean getting up to speed with the facts around palliative care, your company’s policies around bereavement leave and understanding the appropriate things to say.

If you’re at a loss at what to say, Williams suggests saying: “I don’t know what to say,” or “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you”. They’re both good fall backs because they demonstrate empathy, not sympathy.

“Empathy is the ability to be able to pause on trying to placate something and instead just be present with the person who is suffering,” she says.

Facilitate invisible care: Williams recalls her boss saying to her friends at work, “you have a mandate that you will have cups of coffee with Jess whenever she needs it.” Little things like that can really help, they don’t need to be apparent to the person that’s grieving.

Provide practical assistance: Rather than asking, “how are you?” Williams says we should instead say, “what do you need?”

“Check in with them and ask “can we bring a lasagne over?” or “do you need your dog walked?” You don’t want people to run off and get excited about raising thousands of dollars to pay for something that person doesn’t need. Care, compassion and kindness are micro. They’re often small things that create a sense of wholeness,” she says.

Think about how to communicate the circumstances: Give some consideration to how the message gets out. Generally, a short email is best. A few weeks after the death of her son, Williams’ boss asked her if it was okay to inform her clients through their e-newsletter. Create a plan that best suits the individual’s’ preference.

Wear your heart on your sleeve: If you’re comfortable doing so, Williams says a great way to instill a healthy culture around death in your workplace is to share your own experiences.

“I’ve heard stories about CEOs who’ve talked publicly in their workplaces about losses they’ve experienced. Whenever you’ve got an opportunity to put a difficult topic on the table, put it to your people who’d like to speak about it.” These conversations should always be voluntary.

“Recognise that loss comes in all shapes and sizes. For some, the death of a cat can feel as bad as the death of a baby. Don’t minimise loss based on your opinions,” says Williams.

National Standards

In Australia, bereavement leave is only two days. Williams says that “two days isn’t enough time to get over a bad haircut, let alone plan a funeral”.

She wants to see national employment standards that extend bereavement leave to ten days and says that employers should offer paid bereavement leave for casual staff too.

“There’s no silver bullet for it. There’s a layer of complexity around bereavement leave in that you have to do a couple of different things in order to ‘do bereavement’ well at work.”

What strategies does your workplace have in place for dealing with death and grieving? Share in the comments below.

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Great article Kate, thank you for sharing. And i totally agree on the bereavement leave front – when i have a grieving staff member in my office and say I there’s only 2 days in the Award/NES, i’m thinking ‘okay so that’s for today… and the day of the funeral..’ it’s not enough. i couldn’t imagine having to come back to work that quickly, much less having to work in the days between dealing with the passing of a loved one and attending their funeral – assuming you don’t have to plan it or manage the will as well! I’d… Read more »


Enlightening article. Really makes you understand that micro acts can be so meaningful and appreciated. Some organisations do go above and beyond the NES. One organisation I worked for previously acknowledged that they were in a regional location and most family members did not live near by. They increased their formal bereavement leave policy to 5 days to allow for travel to and from such occurrences/events. Their informal policy was even greater than this. When my mother passed away suddenly I was given more than this – I probably had 2-3 weeks (including some public holidays) and they just arranged… Read more »


Why to wait for a law!
HR professionals with their big, warm heart can offer extra leave days.

Catherine Cahill
Catherine Cahill

I’m so pleased to see this being discussed. he first time I had to work through a bereavement at work, I recognised that as the “HR person” people were expecting me to take the lead, but this sure was not something they taught me at college!

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