Mental Health Month: addressing suicide in the workplace

Suicide rates have been climbing in recent years, and with it the number of workplace suicides.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 291 workplace suicides in 2016, the highest number recorded since the CFOI started in 1992.

“In this highly digitized world, we’ve become less and less interactive with other people. So it’s really that people aren’t feeling connected to other people [and] I think it really is playing into our mental health,” Heather Ford, director of social services at Destiny Springs, said. “Human beings are hardwired to connect to other human beings. When we’re not doing that, we’re not looking to see any of the signs that might be there for people who are struggling.”

Nationally, there were 45,000 overall lives lost to suicide in 2016 with more than half of the states’ suicide rates going up more than 30 percent since 1999 reported the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Suicide is a topic that must be brought out of the darkness in order to save lives,” the American Psychiatric Association Foundation Center for Workplace Mental Health wrote. “While the burden of suicide is carried by the working-age population, age 24-64, most workplaces are relatively unprepared to help employees who are struggling with suicidal thoughts.”

Waiting until someone passes to begin a conversation around suicide is too late and workplaces need to be proactive rather than reactive, Ford said.

These deaths can be sudden and traumatic for employers and colleagues and cause a ripple effect of anger, sadness and guilt. So how can an employer best prepare for the unknown?

Promotion of self-care is huge,” Ford said. “I think really focusing on the importance of having self-care and making sure that [you’re] checking in on your employees. That has been one of the most successful things, having employees feel like they’re cared about and connected with their supervisors and managers.

Employers can check in on their employees by:

  • Asking how they are doing;
  • Listening without judging;
  • Mentioning changes you have noticed in the person’s behavior while showing that you are concerned about their emotional well-being;
  • Suggesting that they talk with a mental health professional and offer to help arrange the appointment;
  • Continuing to stay in contact and pay attention to how they are doing.

“I’ll say to my staff, ‘hey, you’ve had a really rough week this week. What’re you going to do for self-care? How about you leave early today?’ [It’s] so that we recognize that their mental status and in order to do a good job… you have to be in a good place. It’s a checks-and-balances thing with your staff,” Ford said.

In the event that a suicide does happen at the workplace, an organization should have a workplace plan and provide accommodations for employees.

It’s a culture shift,” Ford added. “That culture shift is building relationships and being connected with staff to the point that you might feel comfortable to say ‘hey, are you in a bad place right now? Do you need some help?’… and the employee feeling comfortable enough to say, ‘hey this is a rough week for me, is there any[way]…I can take a day off or take a half day?’ or [ask for] whatever they need in that moment.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. For more information, here are employer resources: manager’s guide to suicide postvention in the workplace and how to help someone who is suicidal.

If you or someone you know is suicidal call 1-800-273-8255.

Emily Richardson

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