Death or Illness of a Coworker

Many of us spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our family some days.  Close or complicated relationships often develop.  Co-workers may become our close friends and confidants.  Or they could be more distant, but remain consistent people in our work world.

When a co-worker has a serious illness , colleagues may notice:

Physical changes

  • Complaints of fatigue
  • Complaints of discomfort
  • Alterations in appearance (weight, skin color, posture)

Behavior changes

  • Depression, irritability, sadness, tears
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Anxiety  or agitation
  • Change in priorities
  • Diminished effectiveness

The affected individual may need to take time off for medical appointments or may not be able to fulfill his duties.  A co-worker may acknowledge illness and take time off, but might not disclose the nature or extent of his illness to his colleagues.  Colleagues may become concerned, not only about the well-being of their co-worker but also about the work.  It may be challenging to express concern for the co-worker’s health and for the work that may be suffering.

What should you do when a colleague may have a serious illness?

  • Respect their privacy and take cues from your colleague
  • Be kind and compassionate
  • Ask general questions, i.e. “How are you doing?”  “What can I help with?”
  • Be a good listener
  • Allow time for people to share their concerns
  • Accept the fact that work will be affected

What should I do if I have a serious illness?

  • Prepare ahead by saving money for a crisis
  • Talk about the prognosis with your health care providers and your family
  • Decide what you want or need to disclose to your supervisors and colleagues
  • Anticipate the needs of the position and your co-workers
  • Give your colleagues cues about what is OK to discuss and what you prefer not to talk about
  • Consider what accommodations you may need
    • Flexible scheduling around medical appointments
    • Time off
    • Change in job duties

The impact of the death of a co‐worker may involve many considerations:

  • The number of years worked together
  • The nature of the relationship
  • The age of the deceased
  • The suddenness and nature of the death
  • Succession planning or how the job will be done

Other challenges may be facing the work group at the time of the loss.  For example, when the co-worker dies, grief is the normal and healthy response.  People grieve in different ways.  Work will be affected and it will take time to return to normal.  If the death was suicide, homicide or happened at work, people will be more distressed.

What are effective coping strategies when a co-worker dies?
Management should meet with staff to talk about the facts of the death and plans for acknowledging the loss by allowing people time to attend memorial or funeral services.

People may find it helpful to gather together as a group to talk about the deceased and the death and share their feelings.   Inviting a facilitator with experience in grieving (such as the EAP) to such a group can be helpful.  Acknowledging co-workers who have taken on more work during an illness and bereavement should be done.  Establishing a memorial at work such as naming a bench or planting a tree can be meaningful for colleagues to remember the deceased and their contributions.

Additional helpful information is available at:


BMC EAP – free, confidential counseling via toll-free phone line or in person for BMC employees and eligible dependents. (Password for BMC Employees: LMEAP).
BMC Chaplain Services – pastoral counseling, family systems and working with groups as well as in a wide range of traditional spiritual and religious areas.
Support Groups at BMC:
Cancer Support Groups
Multiple System Atrophy Support Groups
Stroke Support Groups

Faculty and Staff Assistance Office – free, confidential counseling and referral service for faculty, staff and their families with locations on both Medical and Charles River campuses
BU Chaplain Services – each of the University Chaplains comes from a particular religious tradition but is available to members of the community from any tradition.

Please contact us to set up an on-site individual or group grief counseling session.