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Ask an HR Expert: What Should I Do When a Worker Is Cutting Herself?

Inflicting wounds on one's own body could indicate a serious mental health condition.

A woman is sitting on the floor with her hands on her head.

​Investigate the matter promptly. Cutting one’s own body is a self-harming behavior that could indicate that an individual is under extreme emotional stress or has a serious mental health condition.

For some people, slicing their skin provides a temporary feeling of relief from emotional pain. But it is often followed by shame and guilt and could even result in a serious physical injury such as an infection or an excessive loss of blood.

Observe the situation. People who self-harm might withdraw from others. They might wear long sleeves to conceal their injuries. If appropriate based on your observations, ask the employee if she or he needs help.

Self-harming behavior could be the symptom of a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the statute, employers are permitted to ask a worker medical questions if they believe a direct threat is present.

Consider referring the worker to your organization’s employee assistance program. Check your health plan for available mental health benefits, such as counseling sessions. Free hotlines and helplines also are available from nonprofit organizations. In addition, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for serious health conditions, which may manifest themselves in self-harming behaviors. If your organization is covered under the FMLA, offer the employee a medical certification form to determine whether his or her condition qualifies for coverage.

Of course, you can’t force a person to seek medical or psychological help. But if the situation becomes grave, and you believe there’s an immediate threat of suicide, call emergency medical services.

Regan Gross, SHRM-SCP, is an HR knowledge advisor with the Society for Human Resource Management.

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