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How to Spot Suicidal Behaviors in the Workplace

Two women hugging each other while sitting at a desk in an office.

​September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month—an effort to destigmatize suicide, educate the public on the importance of mental health care and provide prevention resources to those who need them.

For Robert Bogue, the occasion hits close to home.

His son, Alex, had what seemed like an enviable life—a significant other, new house, supportive work environment and connected family. However, he also grappled with psychological trauma caused by the death of a co-worker with whom he was close.

In August 2021, Alex ended his life at 28 years old.

"In a moment, he believed the only escape from his [psychological] pain was to end his life," said Bogue, who serves as president of Thor Projects, an Indiana-based technology company.

Nearly 46,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 12.2 million adults seriously contemplated suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt and 1.2 million attempted suicide.

Bogue said the influence of the workplace on suicide has yet to be widely researched, but organizations can play a significant role in supporting their employees' mental health and referring them to life-saving resources.

Signs of Suicidal Ideations in the Workplace

According to health insurance company Cigna, employees who grapple with suicidal ideations could:

  • Make direct statements about ending their life.
  • Make indirect comments like "What's the point of living?," "Life is meaningless" and "No one would miss me if I were gone."
  • Talk or write about death or dying, including in social media posts.
  • Give away their possessions.
  • Ask about life insurance policy details, particularly related to cause of death.
  • Show interest in end-of-life affairs, such as making a will or discussing funeral preferences.
  • Exhibit noticeable changes in behavior or mood, such as appearing uncharacteristically sad, quiet or withdrawn.
  • Neglect work, appearance or hygiene.
  • Voice hopelessness or helplessness.

"If you're concerned about someone considering suicide, ask them directly and talk with them openly about it," Bogue added. "The research supports that you won't cause them to attempt because of the conversation, [but instead] you'll connect with them, and that's a strong preventative factor."

What About Remote Employees?

A 2020 Gallup survey found that employees who work remotely full time reported higher levels of burnout than part-time remote workers and those who do not work from home. In some cases, burnout can lead to depression. Severe or prolonged depression can result in suicidal ideations.

Myra Altman, vice president of clinical strategy and research for mental health platform Modern Health, said managers can support remote workers even if they don't meet face-to-face.

"For managers to notice signs of depression among remote workers, they need to be actively listening to their employees when they mention being overworked, unfulfilled, stressed or dealing with challenges in their personal lives," she said. "This starts with empathy and awareness."

Altman said managers should keep a lookout for any changes in their remote employees' behaviors or emotions, such as struggling to meet deadlines, talking less than usual during virtual meetings or exhibiting irritability during virtual exchanges.

"Those are good opportunities to open a conversation and check in to see how someone is doing," she explained. "This is always made easier if the manager has already created a culture of psychological safety where people feel safe and comfortable raising concerns and being themselves."

Help Is Available: Dial 9-8-8

Businesses can support employees' mental health by:

  • Creating a welcoming, inclusive work environment.
  • Decreasing employees' workload as needed.
  • Offering additional "mental health days."
  • Referring workers to employee assistance programs.
  • Ensuring employees have access to crisis contact information.

Dr. Les Kertay, senior vice president of behavioral health services for Axiom Medical in Chattanooga, Tenn., said having staff trained in mental health first aid or other social support trainings could be beneficial.

"Perhaps most importantly, managers must be trained in recognizing distress and in compassionately reaching out when it's appropriate," Kertay said. "I would certainly recommend engaging a knowledgeable professional or organization to help build a program that makes sense for the specific workplace, rather than having a generic approach or piecemeal providing mental health/meditation apps or classes."

If employers strongly feel that a worker is considering suicide, dial 9-8-8.

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is the new national suicide prevention network comprising more than 160 crisis centers that provide 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline. The lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress as well as crisis resources and best practices for professionals.

"Find a private place, dial 9-8-8 and stay with [the distressed individual] until the crisis counselor on the other end of the line or the employee suggests that you should leave," Bogue said. "The best practice for suicide is 'warm handoff,' [which] means getting the right people to support them—not just providing them the number."


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