Different Workplaces, Different Risks
The death of a coworker can have a profound impact in the workplace. This impact often can be seen throughout the workforce—and, as workplace grief and critical incident specialists, we think the impact has been especially harsh during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Thompson and Lund (2009), organizations have different typologies leading to potential contact with workplace death. These are a primary, central, continuous, and periodic focus (pp. 28-29).
Death in Health Care
An organization with a primary focus on loss and grief is one where death happens commonly during a work week—in fact, in these workplaces, death is its purpose for existing. Thompson and Lund list among these “hospices, funeral homes and related organizations” (p. 28). Workers in such organizations will encounter death and the grief of others. However, they are never far from experiencing grief from having become close to patients and patients’ families, as with hospice care. Additionally, those in the funeral home and cremation industries will deal frequently with not only deaths, some of them gruesome, but also the family’s needs and, subsequently, their own needs.
COVID-19 precautions will have put them in touch with highly distraught families who couldn’t plan the kinds of services they wanted. Workers themselves may have seen higher than normal numbers of deaths of otherwise healthy people or people dying outside the normal age bracket. Their own needs for health precautions, particularly during 2020 before COVID-19 vaccines became available likely would have increased anxiety about the caregiving that is the focus of their business.
Death Among First Responders
An organization with a central focus on death and grief is one in which they may not be daily occurrences but “nevertheless never far away.” These include “some types of health care settings, the emergency services [including first responders], and, to a certain extent, care homes for older people” (pp. 28-29). In these settings, there is an expectation that deaths will occur at times; hospitals, for example, exist to help people get better, but health and life aren’t guaranteed.
First responders and other emergency services workers not only will be called to death situations but also may face such situations for their own people; police and fire fighters often experience such line-of-duty deaths, but also emergency vehicle drivers have accidents at high speeds. Military members in a time of conflict are core members of this group. Older people in many health care settings will die, some quite unexpectedly. Again, with the COVID-19 virus, all these workplaces have seen unexpectedly high numbers of deaths—sometimes more than they could handle logistically—often of coworkers and their families.
Death Among Counselors
An organization with a continuous focus on death and grief is a “step down” in the “degree of concern in relation to loss and grief issues” (p. 29). The authors mention particularly social welfare organizations, for which not only death but other extensive losses are part of their ongoing work. These workplace settings would include military members outside of a conflict as military work always is dangerous. Other workers include social workers in and out of hospitals, pastoral care providers, licensed clinical counselors, critical incident stress management responder teams, emergency dispatchers, and many others.
In such workplace settings, the immediate contact with others’ deaths may be less than for primary and central focus work settings, but the opportunity for vicarious grief exists. Their work, too, may have increased exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes leading to feeling overly burdened and even burned out.
Death at Work
An organization with a periodic focus on death and grief really “includes all other organizations, regardless of their size, nature, location, or focus” (p. 29). As Thompson and Lund indicate, “where there are people, sooner or later, there will be loss and grief” (p. 29). These are primarily the general kinds of workplace settings we’ve referred to throughout our book.
This typology shows that workplaces vary by degree in terms of the vicarious and interpersonal losses they will experience. But, make no mistake, all workplaces will experience death and major losses, and all employers will need to have some knowledge of how to help their workers (and themselves) when inevitable death, loss, and grief arise.