It can be hard to know what to do when a staff member dies. As a manager or business owner, you’ll need to take on responsibilities that may feel new and unfamiliar. It’s your job to support colleagues through their shock and grief, as well as deal with payroll, paperwork and other administrative tasks.
Every situation is different, so you’ll need to adjust your approach to suit the needs of your business and its staff. However, this article will talk you through the basics of what to do when an employee dies. We’ve also included links to websites and organisations where you can access additional support.
Overview of steps to take when an employee dies
Here are the basic steps to take if a staff member has died in the UK. We’ll explain this procedure in more detail below.
If an employee dies at work
- Call the emergency services
- Inform the Health and Safety Executive
In all circumstances
- Contact the employee’s family
- Announce the death to colleagues and provide support
- Deal with contract and payroll tasks
- Deal with personal belongings and company equipment
- Plan for the future
What to do when an employee dies at work
When an employee dies at work, there are some crucial steps you must take immediately.
Call the emergency services
The first thing to do is call 999 and tell them what has happened. By law, you must report a workplace death to the police, even if the person was working off-site when they died. They may also send an ambulance team to confirm the death and collect the person’s body.
Do not move the person’s body. Leave this to the emergency services.
Inform the Health and Safety Executive
You must also tell the relevant accident reporting authority about the death. For most businesses in England, Scotland and Wales, this is the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
HSE Incident Contact Centre: 0845 300 9923
In Northern Ireland, the relevant authority is the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI). Visit this page for instructions on how to make a report.
Again, you must report the death even if the employee died off-site.
Steps to take in all circumstances
Follow these steps whether the employee died at work or off-duty.
Contact the employee’s family
If the employee died at work
The emergency services might contact the employee’s next of kin to let them know they’ve died. If they don’t, you’ll need to deliver the message.
This is a very difficult thing to do and there are no easy guidelines for how to do it. Just remember to be sensitive, compassionate and patient. And don’t be tempted to put it off – it’s important they’re informed as quickly as possible.
If you don’t feel up to it, you could ask a trusted colleague to call them. It’s best if this is someone who was close to the person who has died.
If they died outside of work
It’s a good idea to contact the person’s family when you hear about the death. They’ll appreciate the support and it will help you understand what steps to take next.
Make sure you do the following, if appropriate:
- Express your condolences by phone, message or email
- Ask if there’s anything you can do to support them
- Ask their permission to announce the death to coworkers
- Ask how they’d like you to announce the death
- Ask if they’ve made funeral arrangements and whether they’d like coworkers to attend
- Ask if there’s anything they want to share with coworkers. They may not be comfortable sharing details of the person’s death right now.
Expressing your condolences to their family
While it may be one of the hardest calls you ever have to make, offering your condolences could mean a lot to your employee’s family. Making contact by phone is usually the most personal way to share your condolences, but if you don’t feel able to do this, sending a heartfelt email or text message is an alternative.
You could also send a condolence card or flowers. Though it’s important to keep in mind that sending flowers and other gifts after someone has died isn’t considered suitable in all religions and cultures. If you’re in doubt, it’s worth checking first.
Announce the death to colleagues and provide support
The next step is to let the person’s workmates know that their colleague has died. Bear in mind that this might come as a shock to people, so it’s important to break the news gently and offer ongoing support.
Announcing the death of an employee
It’s up to you how to announce the death of your employee. Various things could influence your decision, like the circumstances of the person’s death, their relationships with colleagues and the size and setup of your business.
It’s also important to consider the wishes of the person’s family. Get their permission before announcing the death and use their preferred method of announcement if you can. Don’t delay your announcement unless the family has asked you to.
If the employee was particularly close to certain colleagues, it would be best to tell these colleagues first. Do this separately, privately and in person, if possible.
Next, pass the news on to all staff. You could do this via email, written letters or a staff debriefing. Here are a few tips:
- Be sensitive and reassuring
- Tell them how they can offer their condolences
- Share details of the funeral (if the person’s family wants workmates to go)
- Don’t share details of how the person died, unless their family has asked you to
- Make clear that you’ll offer ongoing support and tell them how to access this support
After you’ve informed staff, it’s worth letting clients or customers know too – especially if they worked closely with the person who has died. Take the same approach here: be gentle and reassuring and share relevant details such as funeral times.
Coping with grief in the workplace when an employee dies
Dealing with the death of an employee is difficult for everyone involved. That’s why it’s important to put a plan in place to help people cope.
Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind.
Be clear about the support you’ll offer
The most important thing is to let people know you’re there for them. Make it clear that they can contact a manager or another appointed person for support.
Let people know about other ways to get help
If your business offers counselling through an employee assistance programme, let staff know how to access it. Otherwise, direct them to a bereavement charity. Here’s a list of bereavement charities in the UK.
Show patience and understanding
Give people time and space to process their loss. This is especially important for those who worked closely with the person or were close friends with them. If at all possible, allow people time off to go to the funeral or to help with their mental health.
Bear in mind that productivity will be affected. Don’t penalise people if their work suffers because of their grief.
Remember that bereavement support is an ongoing process. Some people will feel the effects of grief for months or even years. Be sure to check in regularly with staff to ask how they’re coping and let them know that support is still available.
Important: be sensitive to personal, cultural and religious differences among staff. These can affect how people cope with and express their grief. Remind employees that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.
How to honour an employee who died
A good way to offer your support is to provide a place where staff can share condolences and memories of the person who has died. This could be:
- A real book of condolence: this is a notebook where colleagues can write sympathy messages. When the book is full, you can share the messages with the person’s family.
- A digital book of condolence: websites like Thankbox and Kudoboard let you create an online memorial for an employee.
- A memorial event: you could organise a get-together to remember the person. This could be on or off premises. Invite the person’s family if appropriate.
Deal with contract and payroll tasks
These are complicated topics, so we’ve only covered the basics here. For more information, visit GOV.UK.
Terminate their employment contract
What happens when an employee dies is that their employment contract becomes ‘frustrated’. This is a legal term that means ‘one of the parties is unable to fulfil their contracted duties’.
In practice, this means you should treat it as if the employee left your business on the day they died. The contract is considered automatically terminated, though you shouldn’t issue a P45.
Deal with payroll
For payroll, use the employee’s date of death as their leaving date. If they worked from Monday to Friday and died on a weekend, use the date of the Friday before.
You should pay wages into their bank account as normal. Remember to include any accrued holiday pay – again, as if they had left your business voluntarily.
Deal with pensions and tax
You must tell the employee’s pension provider that they have died and that no more payments will be made.
You must also tell HMRC. You can do this by sending a full payment submission (FPS). For detailed instructions, visit GOV.UK.
Tell the person’s family about any employee benefits
The employee may have taken advantage of employee benefits like life insurance or death in service benefit. If so, let their relatives know about these benefits and how to access them. The payouts from policies like these could provide much-needed financial support.
Deal with personal belongings and company equipment
At some point, you’ll need to sort out the person’s possessions and clear their work area. It’s up to you to decide when to do this.
Let’s take an office environment as an example. If an office employee dies, you might have to think about:
- Their personal belongings: these should be returned to the person’s family.
- IT equipment and stationery: these can be thrown away or reused.
- Company property they took home: you’ll need to contact the person’s family and ask for the property to be returned. Be delicate about this. It’s probably best not to ask right away.
Bear in mind that colleagues might find it distressing if they see you clearing out the person’s desk or locker. It might be best to do it after most staff have left for the day.
You may even want to consider changing the seating arrangement in the person’s office. Colleagues may feel uncomfortable using the person’s desk or sitting next to it. Changing things around or moving the desk into storage can help people cope.
- Visit GOV.UK for official guidance on reporting and payroll.
- Visit Acas for advice about offering support and finalising affairs.
- Refer to our list of bereavement charities in the UK.