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Ask an HR Expert: Concerns About Self-Harm

Worried that an employee who made suicidal comments might hurt himself? Here's how to respond.


A man standing in a dark room with a light shining through a door.

​If it appears there is an immediate threat of self-harm, contact local emergency services. Otherwise, offer support and remind him that others care. That can be a powerful message. 

Discussing suicidal remarks or an employee’s mental state can be challenging. Find a private place to talk about your concerns regarding the worker’s statements or behaviors. While unlikely, it is possible that the person’s comments were casual remarks made in poor taste. Ask for clarification about what he meant by his comments and what may be causing him distress.

Resist the urge to force the person to take time off or to require fitness-for-duty certification. Instead, ask what you can do to help and offer suggestions regarding mental health services. That said, do not attempt to diagnose the person’s condition or solve his personal issues. Listen and encourage the worker to seek help through an employee assistance program, local hospitals or crisis lines such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255 [TALK]).

It’s possible the individual has a condition that is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but don’t make that assumption without seeking more information from the employee or his or her health care provider.

If you are concerned that an offsite worker is in immediate danger, consider requesting a wellness check by the individual’s emergency contact or a local police department.

HR staffers, along with supervisors, may be among the first people to recognize that an employee is suicidal, so it is critical to note alarming comments and behaviors and to encourage at-risk employees to seek help. Warning signs may include reckless behavior, withdrawal from family or friends, or rage. Prepare HR personnel and supervisors with suicide prevention awareness training.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and costs businesses $69 billion annually, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. But it’s the incalculable human toll that is most devastating. HR is uniquely positioned to lessen that.

Melissa White, SHRM-CP, is an HR Knowledge Advisor for SHRM.

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