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Applying the US Surgeon General's Framework to Employee Death

When I think of the US Surgeon General, I think about the ad campaign that came out when I was young about how smoking was bad for you.

(No.. that is not a real cigarette! It's actually a piece of chalk!!)

But the Surgeon General does so much more than tell us that smoking is bad for us!

In October, the US Surgeon General introduced a new framework for mental health and well-being in the workplace.

The recommendation was developed to help companies deal with mental health issues in the workplace and to help them negate their impact on employee productivity, absenteeism, and turnover.

The framework includes five recommendations. But three are particularly relevant when there is an employee death. They are:

1. Protection From Harm

2. Connection and Community

3. Mattering at Work

But let's get real. Frameworks are great, but the devil is in the interpretations of the framework's application!

So I thought I'd try to help by offering a few specific examples of how to apply the framework when an employee dies.

Protection from Harm

The US Surgeon General says: "Creating the conditions for physical and psychological safety is a critical foundation for ensuring mental health and well-being in the workplace."

Kim says, "Create a supportive environment" Creating a supportive environment will help protect your team. It could look like this:

  • a manager expressing his feelings of loss about the employee's death.

  • seeking input from the team about how they should deal with belongings or the work the deceased team member was doing. Or who will go to the home to pick up company property?

Protecting from harm when an employee dies is about being authentic about what death means to you as the manager and asking inclusive questions that allow others to feel heard, no matter what you decide.

Connection and Community

US Surgeon General says, "Fostering positive social interaction and relationships in the workplace supports worker well-being."

Kim says, "Connect your team in their grief." Teach everyone about grief and give them more comprehensive access to grief counselors.

Most companies' go-to is grief counselors. Of course, you'll want to ensure your employees have access to grief counselors! But here are two ways companies can do more.

  1. Have the counselors available for a month or more cause grief isn't like, "Oh, it's been a week? OK, we're done!" Having grief counselors available for a minimum of a month will allow your team to process their grief when it comes up, not on some random nonsensical timetable.

  2. Offer grief-at-work webinars. Grief makes people think and act in unexplained ways, like suddenly being unmotivated or being short-tempered. Educate your employees so they understand and can recognize grief in themselves and not think it's a sign for them to find a new job at a different company.

Mattering at Work

US Surgeon General says, "People want to know that they matter to those around them and that their work matters."

Kim says, "Mark the employee's absence."

Hold a company memorial service. Attending the family's memorial service is always a good idea, but many employees will not go. Holding a service within the company is a great way to honor the employee and comfort grieving coworkers. It also sends the message to the company that they, the employee, matter! You won't just clean out their desk and pretend they never existed.

There are many other ways to apply the surgeon general's framework to grieving teams.

But the point is to make sure you DO many somethings. As the manager or HR, you are not powerless. There are actions you can take that will profoundly positively affect your team in a difficult situation.

To read the full framework, click here.

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