Leadership’s Role In Dealing With Suicide In The Workplace

Suicide rates among working adults between 45 and 64 are the highest they’ve been in 50 years. Before the pandemic, common reasons cited for the two-decade-long climb were depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. These root causes have been exacerbated by pandemic-related economic and personal struggles, along with a loss of coping strategies that a pre-pandemic social life provided. In 2020, 70% of working-age Americans showed concern with managing depression.

As businesses find their footing again, leadership needs to remember that the pandemic has upended employees’ lives, and many are still dealing with the ramifications. And focusing on mental health in the workplace has become more critical than ever.

Friends, families, and loved ones are affected when a person dies by suicide. But coworkers and employers of the deceased are also bereaved and shaken by suicide. Depending on how emotionally safe employees feel at work, they may or may not feel comfortable sharing emotions like grief, anger, or guilt with leadership. 


Leadership Sets the Tone for Healthy Bereavement

How upper management responds to the death of a coworker by suicide sets the tone for the future of the work environment. First, leadership needs the proper training to respond compassionately, appropriately. Then, they must collaborate with HR to create a plan that allows employees to grieve and return to work to move forward as a team. 

Effectively leading a team through a complex process like a death by suicide builds trust and makes employees feel seen and supported. Responding insensitively, underwhelmingly, or overreacting can create distrust among employees. Inadequate leadership responses can leave employees feeling that their company is ill-equipped to handle the unimaginable but very real challenges they face in their personal lives.  

Here are steps that management can take to ensure that they’re appropriately responding to suicide in the workplace. 


Suicide Postvention In The Workplace

Postvention is a strategy for dealing with suicide in the workplace by offering direct support to team members after a coworker has died by suicide. It includes taking steps that reduce adverse effects on team members and the workplace. In addition, it helps workplaces plan to facilitate a return to work at the appropriate time. 

Management and HR leaders should collaborate to take short-term actions like communicating about the loss and supporting employees as they grieve. In addition, implementing preventative measures is critical to protect employees from a potential suicide crisis.


How to Communicate Appropriately About Suicide With Your Employees

Leadership should be ready to show compassion and empathy to employees impacted by their coworker’s death. In addition, they should allow time and space during the workday to talk to the team members as a group and individually. 

It’s essential to recognize the importance of language when speaking about something as stigmatizing as suicide. Avoid words like “committed,” “successful,” and “unsuccessful,” and say “died by suicide” or “suicide attempt” instead. Using this language establishes a tone of neutrality and avoids perpetuating the stigma of suicide.

The best way to ensure effective communication is to have an internal communications plan to inform team members about the death of an employee. The Action Alliance For Suicide Prevention has templates for internal notification memos that you can access here.

Leadership should also take steps to minimize the contagion effect, which is a phenomenon that happens when others develop suicidal thoughts after being exposed to suicide. Research shows that suicidal behavior is contagious, and there are a few critical steps to preventing suicide that leaders must take to reduce the likelihood of this happening at work. 

  1. Don’t sensationalize the suicide. Instead, be sensitive about the manner of death without skirting the topic or overdramatizing it. 
  2. Don’t focus on the details or the methods taken. Instead, focus on processing grief, appropriately commemorating the deceased, and educating staff about what to do in a mental health crisis.
  3. Last, provide all staff with information about hotlines for suicide prevention. Should another member be vulnerable to suicide ideation, this will give them immediate support.

The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached by calling or texting 988.  It is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. When you call, text, or chat 988, you will be connected to a trained counselor.  These trained counselors are available to listen, provide support, and connect you to additional resources if necessary.


How to Support Healthy Suicide Bereavement at Work

Grief expresses itself differently for everyone, and management will witness a spectrum of reactions as employees deal with their loss. As a result, it can be challenging to know how to respond, especially if leadership is grieving. 

Pay attention to all of your team members. Enlist the help of behavioral health professionals to work with the team. In addition, impacted employees should be encouraged to use their Employee Assistance Program to access mental health resources. 

The initial shock of such a loss may make productivity difficult for those bereaved by suicide. Lighten workday duties and adjust the expectations of bereaved employees to reduce additional stress. Offer bereavement leaves to attend the funeral and memorial services. 

Management should acknowledge their feelings of loss and grief with their employees. Opening up will demonstrate to the team that sharing their feelings about the loss is okay. In addition, when leaders share their own experience with the loss, employees are more likely to trust leadership as they navigate their own feelings. 

Allow employees to commemorate their late coworker but don’t force them to do so. For example, rather than creating a permanent shrine in the workplace, employees can work together to donate to a cause that was important to the deceased. Or they can organize a group volunteer day to participate in suicide prevention efforts in the local community. 

A point of contact can be assigned to reach out to the family and ask if they support them by cooking food, helping to pack up personal belongings at the workplace, or helping with errands. 


How to Move Forward Together as a Team

With the help of a behavioral health professional and HR leaders, give employees time and space to process their shock and move through their grief. Then, develop a return-to-work plan that is realistic for all team members. 

Be sensitive to workplace events that may trigger grief and respond by acknowledging the person’s life when appropriate. For example, anniversaries, birthdays, recognition, or completion of projects that the deceased contributed to are all opportunities for healthy commemoration. 

Implement a workplace mental training program like Pathways at Work to support employees and prevent future mental health crises. Mental health training serves many purposes. It helps employees to cope with job-related stress, which, along with long hours, has been shown to increase the likelihood of suicidal ideation. Mental health training also reduces contagion while teaching team members to identify the signs of depression and gives them the tools to care for their mental health.


Destigmatizing Mental Health at Work Saves Lives

Providing employees with mental health training at work destigmatizes mental health and suicide. Adults spend the majority of their lives at work. How the workplace responds and talks about mental health can mean the difference between seeking help and suffering in silence. 

The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached by calling or texting 988.  It is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. When you call, text, or chat 988, you will be connected to a trained counselor.  These trained counselors are available to listen, provide support, and connect you to additional resources if necessary.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call, text or chat The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 for help. It is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. 

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