Spotting Suicidal Behaviors in the Workplace
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It is an effort to destigmatize suicide, educate the public on the importance of mental health care, and provide prevention resources to those who need them. A recent article from SHRM (the Society for Human Resource Management), “How to Spot Suicidal Behaviors in the Workplace”, speaks to employers on this topic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 46,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide in 2020. An additional 12.2 million adults seriously contemplated suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million attempted suicide.
As workplace organizations, it is incumbent on us to play a significant role in supporting our 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 intentions 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- Exhibit noticeable changes in behavior or mood, such as appearing uncharacteristically sad, quiet, or withdrawn.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.
Experts say if you’re concerned about someone considering suicide, ask them directly and talk with them openly about it. Research has shown that you won’t cause them to attempt suicide because of the conversation, rather you will 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 hybrid workers or those who do not work from home. In some cases, burnout can lead to depression. There is also more isolation when working from home. Severe or prolonged depression can result in suicidal ideations.
Myra Altman, Vice President of Clinical Strategy and Research for mental health platform Modern Health, says 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 says that 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.”
How Can Businesses Support Employees in Crisis?
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 (Dial 9-8-8 for those considering suicide).
Dr. Les Kertay, Senior Vice President of Behavioral Health Services for Axiom Medical in Chattanooga, TN, says “Perhaps most importantly, managers must be trained in recognizing distress and in compassionately reaching out when it’s appropriate.”
If employers strongly feel that a worker is considering suicide, dial 9-8-8.
The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (https://988lifeline.org/) is a 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.
If assisting an employee who is considering suicide, it is best not to just recommend they call 988, but to assist in the process with a “warm handoff”. 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.
One Connection Can Make the Difference.
SHRM’s HR Week, Sept. 19, 2022. “How To Spot Suicidal Behaviors in the Workplace“, by Matt Gonzales, September 13, 2022. (Subscription may be required.)
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