We lost Andy last week. I never met Andy but I often saw him on our floor during my three years at The HR Digest. He was important to a lot of us. For selfish reasons, I loved him. Andy was especially important to me because he signed my paychecks – as paltry as it may seem it was my only connection with him at work. I’ll miss him. I don’t want to make theories about what was going on in his brain. I’ll leave that work to those who personally knew him. The suicide made me realize we all have a lot going on in our lives and we need to look out for one another.
The workplace is a big part of the lives of most Americans. We spend upwards of 60% of our waking hours at work. An employee’s suicide is bound to have a contagion effect through the organization. It affects the coworkers closest to the employee who dies, supervisors, the Human Resources department and the management. Employees and management often experience feelings of guilt (“If only…” or “I could have done something to help…”), sadness (at losing someone they saw every day) and shame (at the circumstances leading up to the suicide).
When an employee takes their life due to work-related reasons, the effect may well be amplified. Coworkers could experience trauma and this may have a debilitating impact on their performance. Often, workplace suicide leads to the spread of surmises and rumors about why it took place. All of these could affect the employee morale and the image of the company.
Workplace suicide in the United States has gone up considerably since 2007. People lead complicated lives – they don’t simply leave their worries on the doorstep when they come to work. There’s a lot going on, even at their place of work.
An increasing number of employees choose to end their lives in the face of chronic stress, burnout, and extreme pressures at work. Recent studies from Australia, China, Japan, Indian, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States all point to a rise in suicides related to deplorable work conditions. The high workloads due to deadlines and targets, race for profits, as well as ‘excessive individualism’ as each person is forced to compete with their colleague leads to malaise in companies and further turn into the causes of suicidal tendencies. There is no silver bullet to such unaddressed psychological problems in the workplace.
Workplace Suicide Warning Signs
Suicide is a complicated and sensitive topic. But it’s most certainly not a conversation that must be kept hush-hush which only management is allowed to expatiate. Effective suicide prevention begins with understanding the suicide warning signs first. Employees at the workplace should be allowed to have some sense of what they can do to help one another. This includes an opportunity to reach out, inquire, support, speak up, and listen.
Suicide warning signs may be expressed in different ways. For example, one may write about their feelings on social media, one may display disassociating behaviors, or one may speak their feelings aloud.
If an employee talks about:
- Suddenly finding happiness after a long bout of depression;
- Being fatigued all the time;
- Being a burden to others;
- Feeling trapped;
- Feeling of hopelessness or helplessness
- Having no reason to live.
These moods may mean someone is at risk for suicide.
- Loss of interest
People who are suicidal typically exhibit the following behaviors.
- Increased use of harmful substances, such as alcohol or drugs;
- Acting recklessly;
- Isolating from everyone at work;
- Sleeping too little, or too much;
- Not working at their full capacity, being unmotivated.
(American Association of Suicidology, 2017)
Workplaces must have measures in place to talk about suicide. It’s an issue not to be ignored.
Occupations with High Suicide Rates
According to a U.S. report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), low-paid, manual workers who face uncertain unemployment and typically work on their own are prone to committing suicide. Medical professions, which have the prevalence of high work-related burnout, have 80 percent lower suicide rate than the fishermen and farmers. There are job professions which have higher suicide rates than others, here’s the full list compiled by CDC:
- Fishermen, farmers, lumberjacks, workers in agriculture or forestry
- Builders, carpenters, miners, electricians
- Mechanics, maintenance workers, repairers, installers
- Production and factory workers
- Architects and engineers
- Firefighters, police, corrections workers, others in protective services
- Artists, designers, entertainers, athletes, media
- Computer programmers, mathematicians, statisticians
- Transportation workers
- Corporate executives and managers, advertising and public relations
At the end of the 19th century, French sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested that suicide is a mirror to society that reveals the fundamental nature of the social order at a given historical juncture. In the modern world, division of labor has led to isolation rather than interdependence. The suicides of a number of employees at France Télécom between 2005 and 2009 is one well-publicized example of how deleterious effect one’s line of work can have on their psyche.
Today’s workers move in and out of jobs which gives little meaning to their purpose of life. Sometimes the lack of job security and basic stability can cause chronic stress, burnout, anxiety, insomnia, hopelessness, and in worst cases, suicide.
Suicide Postvention: How to Handle Workplace Suicides?
Suicide postvention refers to emotional support that is offered to reduce risk and promote healing to someone who has been bereaved by suicide. A recent Scandinavian study noted an increased risk of suicide for male coworkers of the decedent. The impact of knowing someone who died by suicide may include depression, grief, substance misuse and trauma. It can last for weeks, sometimes months or even years.
The coworkers left behind are faced with unanswered questions about the suicide, especially why? They may also experience intense emotional reactions including guilt, blame, rejection, shame, relief, and sometimes even anger and isolation. It can be a life-altering experience to the person’s coworkers, irrespective of the reasons leading to the suicide. The workplace culture plays an important role in the grieving process. It’s essential to create a culture that supports bereaved employees and prevent others suicides from occurring due to similar circumstances. Those who work in similar conditions are at higher risk of attempting suicide themselves.
The goals of suicide postvention should be:
- To provide accurate information about the coworker’s death, and circumvent misinformation or rumors spreading in the office.
- To provide support to bereaved coworkers, and help them deal with their emotions. This would also help the organization prevent further suicides.
- Address the stigma associated with suicide and mental illness.
The organization can work with a team of mental health professionals to assemble a guide on what to do in case of a workplace suicide. It must address the following: how to respond to an employee’s suicide, and how to help employees deal with the after-effects.
The organization must form a quick response team that takes charge in case of a suicide (or attempted) by any of its employees. The members of the team should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities that allows them to take quick action. As a part of the suicide postvention plan, the organization must:
- Establish who will communicate with the family of the deceased.
- Establish who will communicate the information to employees.
- Establish who will communicate with the media.
- Offer on-site support (counselor, or access to a mental health professional) to the members of the organization.
The organization can share the news about the employee’s suicide after speaking with the family. Often, due to the stigma attached to suicide and mental illness, families prefer not to reveal the cause of death. It’s important to comply with the family’s preference. The details of the death are not to be shared with anyone but the family. It’s also important to avoid singling out a reason or blame on what/who may be seen as responsible for driving the person to take the extreme step.
It’s also important that the organization follows the WHO’s guidelines for reporting on suicide:
- Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems
- Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide
- Avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide
- Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide
- Word headlines carefully
- Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage
- Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides
- Show due consideration for people bereaved by suicide
- Provide information about where to seek help
- Recognize that media professionals themselves may be affected by stories about suicide
Sufficient care should be taken to help employees cope better with their loss. Organizations can do this by giving paid time off for employees to attend any funeral or memorial services. This would allow them to deal with their grief. The support can be extending by providing in-house counselling for the welfare of the employees. Any official communication about the employee’s death should not vilify the employee for ending their life. The suicide postvention team may also identify employees who may require special support, and check in with them to ensure they’re not in distress. Everyone has a different way of grieving; some may take weeks, while others may take months. It’s important for the organization to follow-up and check if any additional support is to be provided.