Suicide Prevention in the Workplace
Suicide is a topic that must be brought out of the darkness in order to save lives. There are many organizations working to dispel myths and bring hope and light to the subject so that those in crisis feel comfortable seeking help to recover and reengage fully in life.
While the burden of suicide is carried by the working-age population, age 24–64, most workplaces are relatively unprepared to help employees who are struggling with suicidal thoughts or to assist colleagues following the death of a coworker by suicide.1 Thankfully, employers can play a powerful role in preventing suicide and responding appropriately when tragedies occur.
Suicide is more common than you might think: A report published in the American Journal of Public Health in the fall of 2012 found that more Americans die by suicide than in car crashes, by homicide, or in other injury-related deaths.2 For every suicide death, an estimated minimum of six people are affected, resulting in approximately six million American "survivors of suicide" in the last 25 years.3 As an employer, you may see your workforce impacted directly through the suicide of employees or more indirectly through employees who lose family members or friends, or through the loss of clients or vendors to suicide.
Employees are affected when family members, clients, vendors, and others who surround the work team attempt suicide or die by suicide. Because of the stigma associated with suicide, many people are unsure how to respond to a coworker who had a death in the family due to suicide. Apart from the immense human cost, suicide deaths often lead to a decrease in productivity and workplace morale when left unaddressed or handled poorly by workplace leaders. Moreover, suicidal behavior and untreated mental illness can often lead to escalating health care costs. When a suicide death of an employee does affect the workplace, the surviving coworkers are often left feeling a mixture of grief, trauma, and guilt that can linger for a long time.
Suicide Postvention in the Workplace
Postvention, a new term for many, is psychological first aid, crisis intervention, and other support offered after a suicide to affected individuals or the workplace as a whole. Postventions seek to alleviate the potential effects of a suicide death. The postvention approach is framed in three phases of immediate, short-term, and longer-term responses. It is important to remember in supporting staff that individuals respond differently to suicide loss over time and in comparison to one another.
"When employers are dealing with the aftermath of a suicide crisis, they often have the 'deer in the headlights' experience because they never thought it would happen to them. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction, which can often cause more harm than good, managers can respond thoughtfully to alleviate the impact of suicide or suicidal behavior and support their workforce through this difficult time," said Sally Spencer-Thomas, PsyD, CEO and co-founder of Working Minds: Suicide Prevention in the Workplace, a program of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation.
"Most business leaders have never been taught about suicide prevention nor how to respond to suicide in the workplace," Bob VandePol, former President of the Crisis Care Network, explained. "These tools can build on the leadership skills many employers already exhibit in supporting their employees—in life-and-death situations where expertise is desperately needed." Leaders and managers are often thrust into the role of responding to suicide and suicide attempts. Postvention materials become crucial, as many people are not informed about resources that are available or have never had to face the issue of suicide.
Tips for Employers
Know the warning signs and intervention steps.
The most effective way to prevent suicide is to increase awareness of the warning signs and to intervene by reaching out to the person in distress. Employers can take an active role by educating managers and employees about the warning signs and appropriate action. Immediate action could include calling 9-1-1 or the crisis line, 1-800-273-TALK. In these cases, it is essential to stay with the person in crisis or to make sure the person is in a private, secure place with another caring person. If someone appears to be experiencing other warning signs, it is important to reach out to the person directly.
How to Intervene at the Workplace
- Ask how he or she is doing.
- Listen without judging.
- Mention changes you have noticed in the person's behavior, and say that you are concerned about his or her emotional wellbeing.
- Suggest that he or she talk with someone in the employee assistance program (EAP), the human resources department, or another mental health professional. Offer to help arrange an appointment and go with the person.
- Continue to stay in contact with the person, and pay attention to how he or she is doing.
When signs are unclear or when employees are unsure how to respond, employees should be instructed to talk with their EAP or human resources department, or call the crisis line.
- Working Minds, http://workingminds.org
- National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, Workplace Task Force, https://theactionalliance.org
- National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Surgeon General, and National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (2012), https://theactionalliance.org/our-strategy/national-strategy-suicide-prevention
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2010). Web-based injury statistics query and reporting system (WISQARS). Retrieved September 17, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/index.html
- Rockett, I.R., Regier, M.D., Kapusta, N.D., Cohen, J.H., Miller, T.R., Hanzlick, R.L., et al. (2012). Leading causes of unintentional and intentional injury mortality: United States, 2000–2009. American Journal of Public Health, 102(11), e84–92. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2012.300960
- Crisis Care Network (CCN). (2013). Collaborative effort produces manager's guide to help workplaces with aftermath of suicide. Retrieved September 17, 2019, from the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP)
Partnership for Workplace Mental Health. (n.d.). Suicide prevention [Excerpt]. Retrieved September 17, 2019, from www.workplacementalhealth.org