The Impact of Suicide on the Workplace

According to the American Foundation for Suicide prevention, in the U.S. a suicide occurs about every 16 minutes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that w orkplace suicides surged 28 percent in 2008. The uncertain economy, financial stress and job insecurity may be contributing factors. During the Great Depression, the suicide rate increased 21 percent. But regardless of the cause, suicide is a public health issue that impacts the workplace.

Who is at Risk for Suicide?
Suicide occurs across all age, economic, social and ethnic boundaries. All of us have stress, family disruptions, grief, medical concerns or trauma at one time or another which can become contributing factors in a suicide. For some of us those stressors become so unbearable that one starts to think about not being able to survive the pain. Four times as many men kill themselves as women, yet three times as many women attempt suicide as compared to men. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people between the ages of 15 and 24. It is important to remember that workplaces are not immune to the impact of suicide.

Is Your Workplace Prepared to Respond in the Event of a Suicide?
Many workplaces deny having an effect or contributing role in a suicide. Yet a suicide can touch the lives of many, effecting workplaces as well as relationships for long periods of time. The suicide of a vendor, client or family member of an employee can cause trauma and grieving which impact workplace functioning and productivity. Yet workplaces today are often more prepared to handle a violent episode such as a store robbery, a bomb threat or a fire than to respond to a suicide crisis. Some may not even allow the use of the word “suicide” among employees who face grief and loss after such an event due to its stigma. Others may provide posters or pamphlets about mental health issues and even an employee assistance program, yet do not have a plan in place to address the threat of or the aftermath of a suicide.

Being adequately prepared to respond to a potential employee suicide as well as to cope with the aftermath of such an event can help an organization address any potential problems, help employees and dependents cope with grief, and bring the workplace back to normal functioning more quickly.

WARNING SIGNS
Seek immediate help from a mental health provider if you see or hear someone:

  • Acting in a sad, withdrawn, or unusual way
  • Seemingly distracted, not engaged in their usual work performance
  • Making statements such as “you won’t have to worry about me”
  • Giving away personal belongings or things
  • Whose work performance becomes erratic or out of character
  • Missing an unusual number of days at work
  • Threatening to hurt or kill themselves
  • Looking for ways to kill themselves: seeking access to pills, weapons or other means
  • Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide

Also seek help by contacting a mental health professional if you witness, hear or see any of these behaviors:

  • Hopelessness
  • Rage, anger, seeking revenge
  • Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking
  • Feeling trapped – like there is no way out
  • Increasing alcohol or drug use
  • Withdrawing from friends, family or society
  • Anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep, or sleeping all the time
  • Dramatic changes in mood
  • No reason for living; no sense of purpose in life

Some Key Workplace Strategies

Suicide is a complex and frightening issue that sometimes overwhelms people into immobilization. Yet workplaces can be a key venue to prevent suicide among those in the workforce by utilizing a comprehensive public health approach including:

  • Vocal and visible leaders who model mental wellness and emphasize the importance of suicide prevention.
  • Policies and procedures that promote a mentally healthy workforce including compassionate reintegration policies, life-skills promotion and a culture of belonging.
  • Suicide prevention gatekeeper training (including front-line staff) to help identify warning signs and risk factors and confidently approach and refer a high risk person to appropriate resources
  • Screenings for early signs of mental health conditions before they become life threatening
  • Access with few obstacles to quality mental health services including employee assistance program services
  • Means restrictions that place barriers between those of high risk for suicide and the means to accomplish suicide (roof access, chemical and weapon access, etc.)
  • Crisis response protocol and long-term “postvention” to stabilize a grieving workforce while honoring bereavement needs

Contributor for this article is Cindy Houston, LCSW, is a Centerstone licensed clinical social worker trained in applied suicide intervention skills (ASIST). She has provided numerous suicide prevention workshops, training both clinical professionals and lay people throughout south and central Indiana.

For more information about providing gatekeeper training for your workforce, or to address the issue of workplace suicide prevention, contact Mark Uebel, Director of Business Solutions, at mark.uebel@centerstone.org.

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2 Responses to The Impact of Suicide on the Workplace

  1. cj says:

    Do you know of examples for policy for a suicidal employee, from a guide training and EAP.

    • Mark says:

      Carol,

      In my EAP business I always counsel that the person’s safety is paramount. Get the person to a safe place – perhaps the ER of a hospital. If you have an EAP they can help you and your managers or supervisors assess each situation for appropriate actions. We train the supervisors and managers of businesses that we serve to be able to identify problemmatic behavior and how to bring the EAP in to help in the situation.

      Mark Uebel
      Solutions EAP