Addressing Suicide in the Workplace

By Adriana Scott Aug 16, 2013

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide among U.S. adults ages 34 to 64 has increased 28 percent from 1999 to 2010. In 2011, 242 suicides occurred in the workplace, a Bureau of Labor Statistics study found.

This raises a sensitive inquiry: How can HR best assist employees struggling with thoughts of suicide?

Young people struggling with such thoughts usually attract more attention: the teen who considers suicide because of a falling-out with a significant other or relentless bullying by peers, said Johnny Lee, founding director of Peace@Work, a Birmingham, Ala.-based organization that seeks to prevent workplace violence through webinars and training events. Advice for this age group oftentimes comes in some variation of “push through the pain” because things get better later in life. How, then, does HR approach Baby Boomers with mortgages, families and a great deal of life experience behind them? Lee asked this question during his June 2013 webinar “Suicide at Work.”

“We need to have people realize it’s OK [to talk about mental illness] and many people are affected by this,” he said. “It’s fine to ask … if you think someone’s hurting themselves.”

This doesn’t mean that a discussion with HR should be without boundaries. Marina London, spokeswoman for the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, based in Arlington, Va., says labeling employees as having a mental illness is on her list of HR “no-nos.”

“It’s not the HR person’s job to diagnose the person who is clinically depressed or bipolar,” London stressed. “The HR position should be supportive of the employee and get them to a professional.”

HR’s first job is to read the signs before determining how to act. At-risk people often leave a trail of clues.

Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D., co-founder of Working Minds, a Colorado-based workplace-suicide-prevention organization, described a giveaway that’s more obvious than one might suspect: The employee will tell you. When contemplating suicide, a person can be entirely consumed by the thought, she said. The problem may be coded in conversation—the individual may talk about death often, for instance.

As uncomfortable as it may seem, it’s important to bite the bullet and ask the awkward questions. “It is very hard to resist a human who is coming at you with compassion,” Spencer-Thomas observed. She suggests that HR professionals frame their questions in an understanding manner, giving the employee the opportunity to explain his or her condition. Statements such as, “I’ve noticed that …,” “It’s understandable given …,” and “I’m wondering if it’s true for you …” should be followed by a nonjudgmental statement.

Other signs to watch for include physical changes like sudden weight loss or a sleep-deprived appearance.

Dr. Carl Bell, an award-winning psychiatrist and the director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, encourages employers to create a work culture that emphasizes productivity as well as employees’ being mindful of changes in their co-workers.

“Smart businesspeople understand that … if you help people flourish, it’ll get people to do better,” Bell said. “[Have] people monitor each other out of productivity, not out of, ‘Gee, what are you doing wrong?’ but ‘Are you OK?’” If an employee’s productivity takes a significant downturn, it’s appropriate to bring up the work-related issue, Bell said.

Without overstepping boundaries that could pin an illness to an employee, HR professionals should offer several options to distressed workers, said Steve Albrecht, Ph.D., an HR and workplace-violence expert. Among them should be contact information for the company’s employee assistance program (EAP). Also consider offering contact numbers for local suicide hotlines.

“HR professionals need to be intuitive and say why they are making these comments,” Albrecht said. Has an employee not been getting to work on time when he typically shows up before anyone else in the office? “What you may be seeing is the tip of the iceberg … the reason that that person’s not coming in on time could be anything from their child care situations falling apart to they’re too hung over in the morning to come in on time.”

The conversation between HR and the employee—and, if needed, the conversation between HR and the EAP—must be as detailed as possible in order to direct the individual to the best health options.

Adriana Scott is an editorial intern for SHRM Online.


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