Suicide in the Workplace: Prevention & Response
Suicide touches everyone. About every 15 minutes someone dies by suicide, and about every minute someone attempts suicide. This is an issue that is especially prevalent among working-age adults. Not only can the suicide of an employee disrupt business as usual, it can deeply impact coworkers and their mental state following the incident. It is the responsibility of both managers and employees to prevent these incidents from happening, and to also respond to people who may be at risk for suicide.
Cost of Suicide
Although many people do not believe suicide is an issue that needs to be addressed within their organization, they are usually unaware of the costs that suicide within the workplace can have on their bottom line. Lost earnings from suicide costs workplaces $1.3 billion per year. For each incident that is prevented, an average of $1,182,559 is saved, including $3,875 in medical expenses and $1,178,684 in lost productivity. Prevention is key when attempting to decrease the chance of this type of incident happening within your organization.
The first step in preventing suicide among employees in the workplace is ensuring you have created a culture within your organization that makes employees feel respected and cared for. Fostering a sense of belonging and community is extremely important when attempting to promote emotional well-being. Feeling connected to a community can decrease the risk for a suicide. Your work environment should promote open communication, encourage people to seek help when they need it, and encourage coworkers to support each other.
Talking about mental illnesses in the workplace is another way to prevent suicide. There is a certain stigma behind having a mental illness and the more that people hear about it and feel comfortable discussing it, the better chance you have of eliminating that stigma. This stigma can prevent those who are dealing with mental illnesses from seeking help, especially in their workplaces. Employees need to know that mental illnesses are real health problems and are treatable. Try establishing “mental health days”, work-from-home policies, or flexible scheduling that would allow for a mentally healthy workplace.
Education is essential when handling mental health issues and suicide. In the workplace, employees are together on a consistent basis talking and working closely. If they are aware and educated on the warning signs and risk factors for suicide, chances are they will be able to detect a problem before it escalates and can get the in-need person help. Lunch-and-learn sessions should also be held to increase awareness on symptoms and signs. Make sure everyone in your organization knows what part they have in prevention.
There are a number of problems an employee can face that could put them at risk for suicide and serve as warning signs for others. Some of the most significant are:
- Prior suicide attempt(s)
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Mood and anxiety disorders (such as depression, PTSD)
- Access to means to kill oneself.
A “triggering” event that may cause shame or despair for a person who is already at risk, may make them more likely to attempt suicide. Such events, including relationship problems or financial problems, combined with one or more risk factor is a dangerous combination that should be monitored closely.
If a person is at immediate risk for suicide, they may be exhibiting some behaviors that are out of the ordinary. These behaviors should be a warning sign and should urge you to take immediate action. The signs for immediate risk are:
- Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself
- Looking for a way to kill oneself, like buying a gun
- Talking about having no reason to live, feeling hopeless
There are a number of other behaviors that, if new or increased, can indicate a serious risk for suicide. Behaviors such as increased alcohol and drug use, extreme mood swings, talking about being a burden to others, or acting anxious can be signs that someone is seriously considering taking their own life. All of these risk factors and signs should be monitored closely, and when noticed, acted on.
Be Prepared to Respond
If you encounter an employee or coworker who is exhibiting behaviors that signal immediate risk, the first thing you need to do is call 911. While waiting for first responders to arrive, stay with the person and do not leave him or her alone. If your organization has an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) or HR department, contact them for further help and support with how to handle the situation. In the case that your organization does not have either of these departments, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
A person does not have to be showing immediate signs of risk to require a response. Employees who may be at risk for suicide should be attended to before they begin to show immediate signs. As a co-worker or manager, there are several steps you can take to reach out, such as:
- Call your EAP or HR department, or call the Lifeline to express your concerns
- Reach out to the person and ask how he or she is doing
- Express your concerns directly to the person at risk, letting them know you are concerned about their emotional well-being
- Be there to provide ongoing support
Grievance Support & Coping With a Loss of a Coworker
In the case of a suicide death, it is very important to provide emotional support for all those within the workplace. The suicide death of an employee can greatly impact other employees and the overall productivity of the company. Employees are going to need space and time to grieve. Foster an environment throughout the workplace that encourages employees to support each other in coping with the situation. People who were close to the deceased may be at risk for similar behavior. Although it may be important for the organization to get back to business-as-usual as soon as possible, it is more important to not ignore the situation and to give your employees the time and space they need to get through such a traumatizing event.
Suicides are unfortunately, continuously common among working class adults. It is the responsibility of upper level managers to take steps necessary to fostering a safe and open community among their employees to prevent these types of incidents for occurring.