Suicide in the workplace
Suicide doesn’t just affect family and friends of the victim. Co-workers feel grief over that loss, too. How can co-workers help prevent a suicide, and what resources should employers provide before and after the traumatic event?
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Suicide is not, as the theme song to both the film and TV versions of M.A.S.H. would have you believe, painless. Suicide is messy and uncomfortable, and most certainly for those left behind it’s painful.
Suicide is also not a topic that gets discussed often in the workplace — again, it’s uncomfortable. Even in professions that have proportionately high rates of suicide, such as the public safety fields of police, fire, and emergency medical services, it’s fairly taboo to talk about. Of course, that doesn’t mean its effects aren’t felt by co-workers and colleagues for days, months, or even years afterward.
According to a December 2016 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, suicide in the workplace is a growing concern. The BLS Census of
Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) showed 282 workplace suicides occurred in 2013, the highest number recorded since the CFOI series began in 1992. [More recent data was unavailable.]
In “An analysis of workplace suicides, 1992–2001,” researcher Stephen Pegula found that workplace suicide occurred most frequently among white males, 35-to-44-year-olds, and wage and salary workers. However, Pegula also found that, although whites and men still experienced the highest relative levels of workplace suicide, those over 54 years of age and the self-employed experienced the highest relative suicide risk.
The rise in workplace suicides is consistent with the rise in the overall number of suicides in the United States, according to the BLS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were 41,149 total suicides in the U.S. in 2013, compared with 29,199 in 1999 — an increase of about 41%. Suicide was also the 10th leading cause of all deaths in the U.S. in 2013, and occurred more than twice as frequently as homicide.
While the majority of suicides still occur outside the workplace, it doesn’t negate the effect on co-workers and colleagues who often spend as much time, if not more, with the suicide victim as his or her family and friends.
Kyira Hauer, founder of Kinda Kreative LLC and the #ReclaimBeauty Project, is spearheading an art show locally on Sunday, Sept. 10 to further the conversation about suicide, specifically in youth and young adults. Hauer is also a therapist at Edelweiss Behavioral Health in Madison, where she specializes in working with people with eating disorders, body image and self-esteem issues, anxiety and depressive disorders, along with co-occurring substance use issues.
Hauer says one of the most important things co-workers, managers, and colleagues can do if someone they work with dies by suicide is to talk about it.
“Do not pretend it did not happen or minimize the reality of what happened,” Hauer notes. “Vicarious or secondary traumatization, described as indirect exposure to a traumatic event by way of experiencing or hearing about the event, is very common, and without the proper support and processing of a loss in a workplace, it is increasingly more likely this will have an effect on others.”
One of the primary resources in the Madison area offering support during these times, according to Hauer, is the “Survivors of Suicide” group, an adult self-help group for those grieving the death of a loved one by suicide. Meetings are free and are held the second and fourth Tuesday of each month from 7–9 p.m. at Journey Mental Health Center.
“You could also look into bringing in someone trained in grief counseling/suicide to help your team process the loss both as a group and individually,” explains Hauer. “Another thing I think is key is to be open to the fact that grief looks different and lasts different lengths of time for everyone. The process cannot be predicated so be open to the conversations and support needs after the loss, even if they come at a time you feel that things have ‘settled down.’”
It’s common for those left behind following a suicide to wonder what warning signs they might have missed, or whether they could have done anything different to prevent the suicide.
“There are a lot of different signs that can present when someone is considering or planning to kill themselves,” notes Hauer. “However, it is important to note that these signs may not be shown to everyone, so not every person is going to be able to pick up on or see these signs.”
That said, some common warning signs include:
- Talking about wanting to die, kill themselves, or what life would be like without them here. This may not just be verbal but through writing, art, etc. It is especially important to watch on social media outlets.
- Looking for a means and way to kill themselves like searching options online to complete suicide, stockpiling medications, or buying a gun.
- Talking about feeling helpless or hopeless, or like their life has no purpose.
- Talking about feeling trapped.
- In chronic or unbearable pain.
- Talking about being burden to others.
- Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs.
- Behaving recklessly or impulsively.
- Acting more anxious or agitated than the norm.
- A sudden increase in mood.
- Sleeping too little or too much.
- Withdrawing from friends, family, or society; isolating themselves.
- Showing rage or taking revenge.
- Extreme swings in mood/emotion.
- Giving away prized possessions.
According to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study reported in 2015, public safety workers had a suicide rate nearly five times higher than the overall U.S. average.
Burnout and compassion fatigue are common in first response and public safety providers, as well as mental and physical health workers such as doctors, therapists, etc., Hauer says.
A Manager’s Guide to Suicide Postvention in the Workplace: 10 Action Steps for Dealing with the Aftermath of a Suicide: http://actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/sites/actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/files/Managers-Guidebook-To-Suicide-Postvention-Web.pdf
5 action steps for communicating with someone who may be suicidal: http://www.bethe1to.com/bethe1to-steps-evidence/
“There is often, too, a lot of stigma in these fields about talking about mental health issues of one’s own or not being able to ‘hack it,’ as it were. So coming into these professions, there are already a lot of intangible barriers to overcome. We need to help eliminate the stigma around asking for help, and we also need to instill and enforce policies that show no workplace discrimination for someone who seeks help/uses resources available. Many are concerned about increased supervision, loss of autonomy, fear of being watched every moment, restriction in advancement of job opportunities/ranks, and more.”
Hauer says one important thing that can be done is incorporating a focus on mental health and wellbeing into the company culture by establishing programs and resources focused on intervention, education, and prevention that brings in not only trained professionals but also encourages peer support and dialogue.
“This is imperative as the resources need to be made available on site and attended to/by managers and supervisors to show this is seen as necessary and supported,” Hauer explains. “As of right now, many public safety programs/agencies have a lot dedicated to fitness and physical health but need to do more to bring in the support for mental health and wellness. A key in helping with this is modeling through higher ups that these discussions and problems are normal and to talk about them and glean support and wisdom from peers and professionals.”
Hauer says professionals also need to know that they won’t make a situation worse by trying to get help for a co-worker whom they fear may be contemplating or planning suicide.
“One of the things I learned in my graduate training is that I do not have that kind of power to lead an individual to kill themselves by asking them if they are thinking about it or seeking support if I am worried. While it may be difficult to reach out for support and we feel like ‘we promised’ or we are ‘betraying [x]’s trust’ by going to someone, it is always better to reach out for help when a concern for suicide is present. And while I oftentimes find, even as a therapist, people are upset when I have to pursue other supports because of my worries for their safety, I always tell them that I would rather have them angry or upset with me and safe as opposed to dead. We can always talk about their feelings but death is permanent.”
Hauer recommends calling your local police department and asking for a crisis intervention trained officer to provide a mental wellness check if you are concerned about someone. If it’s on social media, she says social media sites each have their own platform for submitting these concerns and often can get you connected to other local resources. And if this is a concern at work, especially in jobs where stigma may be associated with mental illness, then it becomes increasingly more important to determine who to go to for non-discriminatory and non-biased support for the co-worker.
She points to a blog post on prevention and response to suicide in the workplace for some actionable tips for co-workers:
If you encounter an employee or co-worker who is exhibiting behaviors that signal immediate risk, the first thing you need to do is call 9-1-1. 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.