Workplace Suicide: Companies Can Take a Lead in Prevention

Screenings, well-publicized benefits, transparency about mental health are key

By Tamara Lytle April 21, 2015

Workplace suicide rates are rising, though they are still a small fraction of all suicide deaths, according to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Between 2003 and 2010, 1,719 people died by suicide in the workplace, while another 270,500 died by suicide outside of the workplace. The workplace rate jumped after 2007, which suicide prevention experts say was linked to the recession.

Workplaces can help to prevent suicides, according to leaders in suicide awareness. The NIOSH study found much higher suicide rates among certain workers—such as first responders, farmers, and maintenance and repair employees—making prevention especially key in those industries.

The high rates among construction workers concerned Jon Kinning of Denver. He co-owns RK Mechanical Inc., a large manufacturing and construction company. One day an employee gave all his tools away to his colleagues, then left work. By the time the company realized this might be a warning sign of suicide, it was too late.

Now the company includes a mental health section in its weekly newsletters and has a suicide prevention coach visit worksites. The message comes from the top that it’s okay to talk about mental health problems and to seek help. Worksites have posters that say “You can’t fix mental health issues with duct tape”—which workers have attached with real duct tape. And the coaster on Kinning’s desk warns “Don’t wait until you explode” and advertises the humorous but helpful website, which encourages men to seek help when they are feeling depressed or anxious.

Many factors make certain professions like construction more subject to suicide risk, said Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and head of the Carson J Spencer Foundation, a nonprofit with a program called Working Minds, which focuses on suicide prevention in the workplace.

She said suicide risk factors include:

● Larger number of men, because they are more likely to take their lives than women.

● Culture of risk-taking or stoicism, such as those prevalent in law enforcement and in the legal and finance professions.

● Culture of substance abuse.

● Temporary or isolated workforces where there’s little sense of community, such as in farming, construction, energy and mining.

Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said other risks are a “macho” culture where people aren’t encouraged to seek mental health services, and jobs where lethal means of suicide are readily available, such as in hospitals or law enforcement.

Suicide rates for men are 2.7 per million, compared with 0.2 per million for women, according to the NIOSH study. Spencer-Thomas said she didn’t realize that working-age men were at such high risk until her own brother, a successful entrepreneur, took his life.

Her group has adopted best practices that she learned from an Air Force study about suicide prevention.

As the “eyes and ears of the workforce,” she said, “HR professionals are our best partners in this work.”

Moutier’s group also has a program companies can use called the Interactive Screening Program. Employees take an anonymous, online test and get results back that connect them with mental health professionals if needed.

Spencer-Thomas recommended making mental health a key part of wellness campaigns, including depression screening. “A mentally healthy employee is more productive, engaged and less likely to be missing work,” she pointed out.

Training in topics like how to start a conversation about mental health can also help educate the peers of someone who may be suffering from depression, as well as those who come into contact with a lot of people because of their jobs or personalities (think of the friendly receptionist), Spencer-Thomas said.

Moutier said one-quarter of Americans have mental health conditions, but only 20 percent of those with problems are getting treatment. Employees need to know it’s okay to say to a colleague, “Are you okay? You don’t seem yourself,” Moutier said.

Spencer-Thomas’ group also has a guidebook for how to talk to employees after a suicide. If it happens at the workplace, she said, it’s important to explain the protocol of what happens next, such as police involvement.

Companies also need to think carefully about how to remember an employee who took his or her life. A permanent memorial, such as a picture in the workplace, can retrigger trauma for people. Better to make a scrapbook for the family or collect money for a cause, she said.

Moutier’s group has templates for companies to help them craft messages to employees after a suicide. It’s important, she said, to let people know what resources are available and to tell them that the company values a healthy workforce, so it’s okay to ask for mental health help.

Kinning said that when one employee came to him with mental health issues, he put the worker in touch with the company’s mental health benefits. Now the employee is better. “That made the whole campaign worth it,” Kinning said.

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer based in Falls Church, Va.

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