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Resilience at Work: Coping with Death at the Office

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Bad things happen, and we’re all mortal. Sometimes we forget that at work, and the death or illness of a colleague can be a great shock.  

Nothing ever goes exactly as we had planned, and we constantly have to adapt and adjust to the events around us. Bouncing back from a major setback such as the death of a team member requires sensitivity and resilience on the part of team members and team leaders in equal measure. It’s never an easy process, but there are steps you can take to ensure those around you are getting the support they need during such a difficult time.

Make sure team members are supported after a team member has passed away. You can expect to do more listening than talking during this time, and as a leader you should make the time and make it a priority in the days and weeks following the news to be there and listen to everyone. Discuss the issue in a sensitive yet straightforward manner. You can also call everyone together to share stories and memories about the co-worker. This kind of sharing helps people express emotions and feelings they may be holding in for fear of becoming “too emotional” in the workplace. It’s important to give people a safe space to express themselves.

Keep in mind people’s reactions may vary. They could be anxious, irritable, frustrated, unmotivated or exhausted. Keep an eye out and notice these things; ask people how you can help. You may need to adjust the rules in the workplace during this time – if someone calls in sick for a few days, make sure they are OK and remember that this could be a reaction to the death. In other words, resilience during this time means adjusting to what is happening around you. Listen, and be there for your team – that’s the best thing you can do during this time.

For more information about how companies like Yahoo! have supported their colleagues during challenging times, go to and get the book Unfear: Facing Change in an Era of Uncertainty.

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Karlin Sloan is the founder and CEO of Karlin Sloan and Company, Ms. Sloan provides organization development consulting, training and executive coaching to clients the U.S., Europe, South America and Asia. She is the author of Smarter, Faster, Better; Strategies for Effective, Enduring, and Fulfilled Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2006) and Unfear (January 2011).
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