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suicide in the workplace

In part 1 on suicide in the workplace, we talked about the employee who is either threatening suicide or thinking about. Now let’s take a look at what to do when the worst case scenario actually happens.

Our Employee Tried It

Scenario 3: You come in to work Monday morning to find a telephone message on your desk from the spouse of one of your employees. When you call her, she tells you that her husband, your employee, has been hospitalized over the weekend following a suicide attempt. You are stunned; not only did you have no idea this employee was in trouble, he was the last person you would ever think would attempt to take his life.

First, let’s take a look at this from a psychological perspective. If it becomes known that an employee has attempted suicide (and word almost always gets around, although, hopefully, not from you), coworkers may feel awkward or embarrassed because they don’t know what to say or how to act. However, avoiding the person or refusing to acknowledge the incident only makes matters worse. The returning employee also doesn’t want:

  • for someone to change to subject if s/he brings it up
  • to be given a pep talk
  • to be given a lecture, sermon, or put on a guilt trip
  • to be patronized, criticized or treated with kid gloves

If other employees ask you how to respond, encourage them to cue off the returning employee. If the employee brings up what happened, coworkers can offer valuable reassurance, respect and support. If the employee doesn’t, encourage coworkers to respect his/her privacy and not succumb to natural curiosity (why did you try it? how did you feel when you woke up? didn’t you think about your family?)

From an administrative perspective, of course, you need to make sure the employee is ready to return to work and able to complete the essential functions of the job. Work closely with the doctor’s office and spouse by writing the doctor, attach a job description (with ADA requirements needed to do the job), and let them know the environment and EVERYTHING and ANYTHING else that this employee may be exposed to and ask him if he/she is capable of performing the essential functions of the position.

If this person requires additional supervision or assignment of someone else to work along side this individual just to protect himself and other employees, this might be considered a hardship on the business as far as ADA is concerned. Working closely with the physician will help you decide on options like STD or LTD, further accomodation like light duty or putting in another area or position, personal leave until the person gets better.

All in all the study indicates that twice as many suicides among men can be ascribed to the “contagious effect” of the workplace than to that of the family.

Grieving at the Office

Scenario 4: This afternoon you will be attending the funeral of one of your outstanding employees, who, after attending a morning of training last week (during which everyone said he acted normal), went home during lunch and apparently took his own life. He joked with co-workers, asked questions, and took notes, leaving his books open and ready for the afternoon session. This employee was very popular with his coworkers and manager and everyone is virtually paralyzed by his death. In addition, there has been a lot of second guessing about what warning signs people may have missed or overlooked.

People develop close relationships in the workplace and the death of colleague can be as devastating as the death of a family member. In fact, a recent study found that, just as a suicide in the family increases the risk of another in the same family, men’s suicide risk increases if they have had one or more work mates who had killed themselves in the last year. In fact, this study indicates that twice as many suicides among men can be ascribed to the “contagious effect” of the workplace than to that of the family. That reason alone justifies encouraging employees to access your EAP if they would like to.

Second, while it is always good to educate your workers about the warning signs of suicide and depression, discourage employees from trying to second guess for what they might have missed. There are no easy answers. There are no simple answers. There are no single answers. Simply, there are no answers.

Part of the healing process is following the same rituals you would after any other death. Encourage employees to do whatever they would normally do to acknowledge a death. You should do the same. For example, if you would tell Mary on Sunday that you sure do miss John who died of cancer, you should tell her the same thing on Sunday if he died in this manner. Finally, no matter how tempted, don’t ask surviving family members to hypothesize about what happened. They’ll have a lifetime to ask themselves those questions without answers and they sure don’t need to try to answer them for anyone else.

The Bottom Line

Jeannette Walls once said, “When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they’re doing is passing it on to those they leave behind.” HR professionals can’t prevent surviving work colleagues from grieving, but we can help them heal.

One of my first therapy clients killed herself. The week before, she’d been sitting in my office wearing red lipstick and orange bauble earrings, talking excitedly about flying out of state to see her newborn grand baby for the first time. I spent weeks listening to the tape of our therapy session and trying to figure out what I’d missed. I still don’t know. What I do know is that, more than twenty years later, it still hurts to think about it.

On-the-Job Hazards

We psychologists know the specter of suicide is ever-present in our profession. I don’t think the same can be said for sales managers or accountants or oil refinery workers. And yet, in 2010, 270 workplaces came face to face with a coworker, manager or subordinate who’d ended his or her life while at work.

This doesn’t mean it was because of work; workplace suicides may or may not have been motivated by work-related issues. On-the-job suicides are defined by the location of the decedent when he or she was killed. If the fatal injury took place at the decedent’s place of employment, then it is considered a workplace suicide. And, regardless of what “caused” the suicide, the impact on the workplace can be traumatic. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to handle threats of suicide; in part 2, we’ll look at what to do after an attempt.

If I’m Fired, I’ll Kill Myself

Consider this scenario: You have an employee who, after months of counseling and coaching, was finally fired for tardiness and a poor work performance. When word gets back to his department, several of his former coworkers come to you and say that this employee told them that he would kill himself if he were terminated. By the time you find this out, the employee has packed up his stuff and left the building. Now what?

Was this threat manipulative? Definitely. Emotional blackmail? Probably. Do you have any legal obligation to intervene further? I’m not an attorney but my bet would be – probably not. Last question; how would you feel if he followed through?

As an HR professional, there are times when it is tough to balance the need to protect yourself legally while acting with compassion. In other words, there’s what you have to do and there’s what you should do. Here are some options:

1. See if one of your current employees (former co-worker of his) would check in with him (by telephone; not by visit) to see how things are going. If, during the conversation, it seems as if he’s still “at risk,”contact your local crisis line people, EAP or social services staff to see what assistance they might be able to provide him. If the former employee seems truly disturbed and continues to threaten suicide, consider calling the police and report the situation.

2. If you offer an EAP for employees, make it available to him. While you might not normally do this for most terminated employees, you have nothing to lose, and a lot to gain, in at least making the offer.

3. Heighten security in your own facility. Some suicidal employees decide to take others with them into the afterlife; don’t give him a chance to do that at your office.

I’ve Been Thinking About It

Scenario #2: You have an employee on one of your night shifts who has told you that she is currently seeing a therapist for depression. Recently, she told her shift supervisor that she is suicidal and is afraid to be by herself or around any sharp objects. She has also been moody and unpredictable with her coworkers and will cry uncontrollably for no reason. Now you find out her supervisor has been spending long periods of time talking to her one on one to calm her down when this happens. This is very disruptive, but you’re not sure what to do.

First of all, if she has stated she is suicidal, respect those statements and take them seriously. Meet with her, tell her what you’ve been told (that it’s come to your attention that she has mentioned thoughts of suicide to her supervisor) and ask her about it directly and give her time to explain.

If she admits that she is suicidal (or even that she’s seriously depressed), get her commitment to either call her therapist or your EAP – and have her do so before she leaves your office (giving her some privacy). If she refuses and you believe she’s at risk, let her know you will need to contact 911 or the police to insure her safety. Also, compassionately but firmly let her know that she can’t be at work until she gets her issues resolved because it is clear that she is currently unable to do the essential functions of her position.

In addition, contact your legal to deal about any return-to-work concerns, privacy worries, or liability issues (aware she was suicidal and not doing anything about it).

The Bottom Line

As HR professionals, a suicidal employee can stir up all kinds of feelings – fear, anger, concern. It’s easy to act on these feelings, by either distancing ourselves from the source (let’s fire him for making threats), judging (how manipulative! If he really wanted to do it, he wouldn’t have said anything) or playing savior (I can save him if I listen enough, watch him carefully, etc.) However, what’s best for the distressed employee is also best for us – get him/her to the help s/he needs while making sure the office is safe for everyone.