In the unfortunate situation that tragedy impacts the workplace, knowing what to do or how to act can be challenging and difficult. The type of tragedy – whether accidental, natural or purposely carried out – will create unique circumstances requiring careful consideration and thoughtful responses. The company often walks a fine line between showing compassion and understanding to the employees and protecting the interest of the business.

Types of Tragedies

There are different types of tragedies that can impact the workplace. The types of tragedies can be broadly categorized to help employers and employees better understand, prepare and respond in the event of a tragedy. The three primary categories of tragedies include accidental, natural causes, or intentional acts.

A tragedy may be the result of an accident, either through the failure of equipment or improper response of an employee. To help avoid accidents resulting in workplace tragedies it is important that employees and management take proper precautions, especially in the event of operating machinery or engaging with a system that can cause damage or harm to ones self or others.

There are occasions when tragedy strikes as a result of natural causes. Death through natural causes like illness or age, or a heart attack or stroke, are processed as a part of the normal progression of life. Tragedies resulting in death can be from an act of nature, like a tornado or earthquake. While natural causes are understandable on some levels, they still produce challenging opportunities when they occur in the workplace.

Some tragedies prompt damage, injury and deaths to occur through unnatural causes – disasters or violence – which add additional challenges to healing and recovery. For example, when the death occurs because of a purposeful act of violence, the very foundations of routine and security may be left in question. The individuals impacted by the event not only mourn the loss, but wrestle with attempts to explain the “Why” of the circumstance. Why would someone do this? Why did it happen to this person? Why am I still alive? There is a very real loss of safety and well-being.

From time to time other types of unforeseen tragedies may occur. It is difficult to anticipate every possible event, but the guidelines and policies for dealing with tragedies that are accidental, intentional or natural can usually be counted on to provide pertinent information for forming responses to unanticipated events.

Company Policies on Tragedies in the Workplace

Regardless of the type of tragedy at work, many companies will form policies to structure procedures for responding to the tragedies in a way that reduces stress to the employee and lessens the risk to the business interests. In many companies, the policies are formed at the human resource level. Managers and employees should periodically review the policies so that in the event of a tragedy everyone is familiar with the proper responses and procedures.

Company policies on tragedies in the workplace will vary, but usually include several of the following concepts.

1. The policy often outlines the structure through which emergency situations can be effectively and efficiently handled. This usually includes maps of the facility, evacuation routes, location of safe rooms, procedures for lockdown and information for handling other perceived tragic circumstances. The policy may include the structure for emergency contact phone trees and directories for emergency contacts and phone numbers. The plan probably has designated areas to meet, a system for accounting for all employees and the mechanism through which additional information and instructions can be given. The safety of the employees is a top priority in the outlining of these procedures.

2. The policy often provides a procedure by which the circumstances of the tragedy can be evaluated. This will usually outline responsibilities for examination and evaluation, cleaning and blocking off areas, and the posting of signage for information and warning. Evaluation after a tragedy not only inspects the facilities, but takes into account the employees. Structure is usually outlined in the policy on how employees will be accounted for following a tragic event.

3. The policy will often outline a communication plan for both the employees and the general public. Quick communication with both builds trust and boosts confidence in the ability of the business to handle adversity. Clear, speedy communication to employees can ease their minds but also minimize their additional risk or danger. The policy takes into account that the public has an interest in a tragedy that takes place at a local business. The workplace tragedy policy will suggest to communicate with the media as quickly as possible. Information about what has taken place, what the company is doing and will do, and how people are coping with the loss can be outlined in a media briefing. Explain that there may be a lack of some pieces of information but it will be released as soon as it becomes available. The plan on communication following a tragedy will spell out a time and a place to allow the media to ask questions and receive information. If the tragedy and recovery is on-going, the company may wish to provide regular briefing appointments open to the media. Company policy may also clarify who will speak on the company’s behalf to the media. Many policies will also indicate what, if any, limitations the employees should have in communicating with the media.

4. Some policies spell out the kinds of assistance programs offered to the employees to help them cope with tragedies. If the company health plan has assistance as a part of the benefits, informing employees about its availability will assist in building trust and confidence. Simple instructions on how to access the assistance will guide management and employees during a time of crisis. If such assistance is not a benefit, the policy may include contact information for local agencies who provide either personal or on-site counseling.

Managing Recovery and Relief Following the Tragedy

Grieving loss from a workplace tragedy is different than other types of grief. Loss at the workplace is not just the loss of life, but also involves the loss of safety and security. Managing the emotions of loss is challenging, and may be more difficult because it can involve a large group of outsiders who are not grieving but covering or processing the event. Dealing with the news, media, emergency personnel, coroners, police and those involved with the legal system only intensifies the feelings of being overwhelmed with hopelessness and frustration for both management and the employee.

Management can assist workers in processing this difficult time by remembering several key ideas.

  • Following a tragedy at the workplace, many businesses will seek to create a safe place for workers to share their feelings. The tragedy may have caused the security of the workplace to be compromised, if only in the perceived minds of the employee or public. Business and management can take steps to rebuild trust and confidence by allowing controlled positive discussion about the events. Seeking input for ideas and best practices will help those involved feel they are listened to and may improve the efficiency of the response of the business.
  • Crisis and tragedy can fuel negative and angry responses from employees. Businesses may want to help the workers curb and manage their anger by providing controlled discussion times, the availability of professional counselors or trained staff and recommendations for further off-site assistance. Some people have a really difficult time dealing with anger. Anger can mask a variety of other emotions and problems. Adults should recognize that anger is a common reaction to an event that can be overpowering. Management may find that maintaining a calm, yet responsive demeanor, will not only boost employee confidence, but also set the model for employee behavior. The business may assist in finding acceptable outlets for anger and energy like exercise, projects or work.
  • Many studies have found that the sooner business patterns and structures can be re-established, the easier it is for employees to manage the aftermath of the tragic events. Keeping to daily routines as much as possible will help rebuild trust and confidence. It will also help take the focus off of the tragic events.
  • Finally, businesses may want to consider a plan to refer workers for professional help if unhealthy or drastic changes in behavior are noticed. Often management does not have extensive training in the areas of psychology, sociology or counseling. They may be prepared to handle the immediacy of the tragic events, but not trained to properly handle the extreme reactions to grief and trauma.

The business can create an environment for management to realize that it is not their responsibility to take care of deeper or longer-term recovery issues. The policy for dealing with tragedy may list local professionals that can be called for referral and assistance.

No one can anticipate the response to traumatic acts at the workplace. A well-developed plan and calm, strong leadership can be instrumental in helping workers recover from a tragedy.