Our co-workers are very much like an extended family. We spend most of our waking hours with them, forging special bonds of trust and friendship that are unlike our other relationships.
As a result, it's not surprising that a co-worker's death can be difficult to deal with — especially if you were close to the person or if the death was unexpected. You may feel anxiety and guilt if the death occurred in the workplace or your last interaction with the person was unpleasant. And even if the co-worker's death came after a prolonged illness, you may still experience shock and depression when you hear the news.
How we cope with a loss depends on many factors, from our personal beliefs to the presence of other stressors in our lives. You may find that thoughts of the deceased make it hard to focus on work for a short while. Or you may find it difficult to get back on track, resulting in mistakes that can disrupt an organization's functioning.
During your daily drive to and from work a preoccupation with a co-worker’s death may cause distractions that could easily lead to a car accident. Similarly, in a production or manufacturing environment, a lack of concentration can present safety hazards for those operating equipment, performing intricate operations or monitoring product quality.
In more extreme cases, a co-worker's death may cause you to become tense and irritated. Those feelings can make an already stressful work environment worse and create new problems elsewhere in your life.
A strong emotional response to a co-worker's death can have a direct and often negative influence on your physical health, too. Long-term feelings of deep sadness can disrupt your eating and sleeping patterns, robbing you of the energy you need to move on with your life. Grief can also cause people with chronic health conditions, such as arthritis or high-blood pressure, to deviate from their prescribed diet, medication or exercise regimens, with serious consequences for their health.
Prolonged grief frequently leads to depression, too. Depression has been linked to many other health concerns, such as heart disease and stroke. In one study, for example, depression increased the risk of diabetes by 17 percent.1 In another study, researchers found that depression boosted women’s risk of stroke by 29 percent even after they accounted for other stroke risk factors.2 Trying too hard not to think about a co-worker's death has its own consequences. Those who attempt to lose themselves in their work risk burnout, a state of intense mental and physical exhaustion. Some may turn to unhealthy behaviors to cope with their sadness such as overeating, drinking alcohol or taking prescription drugs.
What you can do
Grief is a natural process that requires time. You may find these suggestions helpful:
Share your feelings. Your other co-workers may be experiencing the same emotions you are. Mutual support can help everyone get though the grieving process.
Take advantage of employee assistance programs, if available. Experienced counselors can offer support and structure to help individuals and groups come to terms with a loss and make appropriate plans for memorials and gestures of condolences to family members.
Plan ahead. If you are a manager, work with your human resources specialists to establish protocols for responding to a worker's death. Issues to consider include sharing information, handling personal effects, allowing time off for funerals and reassigning space or equipment.
How a psychologist can help
If you continue to feel overwhelmed, consult with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional who can help you learn how to manage your grief more effectively. He or she can help you identify problem areas and then develop an action plan for changing them. Practicing psychologists use a variety of evidence-based treatments — most commonly therapy — to help people improve their lives. Psychologists, who have doctoral degrees, receive one of the highest levels of education of any health care professionals. On average, they spend seven years in education and training following their undergraduate degrees.
Thanks to Helene King, PhD, who assisted with this article.
Revised Sept. 2011
1 Pan, A., Lucas, M., & et al. (2010). "Bidirectional association between depression and type 2 diabetes mellitus in women." Archives of Internal Medicine, 170 (21): 21: 1884-1891.
2 Pan, A., Okereke, O.I., et al. (2011). "Depression and incident stroke in women." Stroke, e-pub ahead of publication.