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Suicide in the workplace: how to help employees prevent and process it

September 23, 2023

The death by suicide of an employee can have a seismic effect on a workforce, and with more than 700,000 suicides a year1, it is an issue that organisations must consider in any wellbeing strategy
Health and Benefits
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Recognising the warning signs of mental ill-health and providing the appropriate support can help prevent employees from developing suicidal ideation.

Prevention is always better than cure, and all responsible organisations implement practices that promote good mental health for employees.

Yet even with the best possible safeguards and strategies in place, suicides in the workplace do occur.

When such tragedies happen, the distress can be worsened if organisations are ill-prepared.

Charlotte McIntosh, Director at WTW Health & Benefits, looks at measures companies can implement to help prevent employee suicide, as well as the role they need to take when death by suicide occurs.

Develop a policy

Companies can take a proactive approach by extending mental health and wellbeing policies to include a suicide prevention/response policy.

When developing such a policy, care should be taken to ensure it addresses those who are at risk of suicide, guidance for employees on how to help their colleagues and direct them to appropriate support, and protocols for how to respond to deaths by suicide.

The needs of employees who have survived a suicide attempt should receive equal attention. Returning to work can be an ordeal, and the employee concerned may fear judgement by colleagues, or being regarded as an object of pity.

To help prevent this, counselling and therapy should be offered before a return, and co-workers should be given advice on how best to support them.

An organisation’s Sickness and Absence Policy, and Return to Work policies, may also need to be adapted.

Focus on mental health

Along with personal issues, work-induced stress can be a cause of suicide. Bullying, discrimination, job insecurity, disciplinary hearings, changes and reorganisation can trigger suicidal impulses. Organisations should therefore ensure mental health and wellbeing policies are relevant, effective and evolve to meet needs.

Employees with pre-existing mental health conditions, and those who work from home, may be particularly susceptible to mental ill-health. However, all employees should be educated about the benefits, resources, tools, services, counselling, helplines and training available.

Employee Assistance Programmes, for example, can provide in-the-moment counselling or therapy services for employees who harbour suicidal thoughts.

Those who are experiencing suicidal ideation typically exhibit symptoms, which include verbal signs, behavioural signs and changes in mood.

Workplace Mental Health First Aiders, team leaders and managers could be appointed and trained to recognise these symptoms and provide appropriate support.

Postvention

Postvention is the term used to refer to reactive support available to employees following a suicide. Effective planning can ensure appropriate care is given in both the short and long term.

Suicide can lead to intense emotions, ranging from sadness and despair, to anger, guilt or frustration.

Openness – and the promotion of healthy grieving – is key, and providing opportunities to talk about the incident can help employees process the tragedy, come to terms with the death and move forward.

To help prevent a suicide being regarded as a taboo subject, managers should not be afraid to lead by example and speak openly about their feelings.

Avoidance leads to stigmatisation. Furthermore, it can lead to affected employees feeling they should not share their emotions and vulnerabilities, and deter them from seeking support.

Evidence shows that those affected by suicide can be at an increased risk of suicidal ideation, which is why postvention is critical.

Leadership should be compassionate and understanding, allowing, for example, colleagues as well as company representatives to attend the funeral.

Where appropriate, management could organise a donation/collection, or arrange a company memorial service, or adopt a cause close to the deceased heart as the organisation’s chosen charity.

Establishing a postvention group made up of representatives from across an organisation could be considered. It should include HR directors, wellbeing leads, and those with relevant skills and experience. Members should receive training, and understand their duties, and the communication process should a suicide occur.

One of its roles should be to signpost benefits, helplines, counselling or bereavement services, which employees could contact should they feel the need.

It may take weeks or months for colleagues to come to terms with a death by suicide, or an inquest many months later may create a surge in troubling emotions. Organisations should therefore offer employees regular check ins or catch ups for as long as they find them necessary or helpful.

A postvention group could have responsibility for formulating a postvention plan. It should be acknowledged, however, that every suicide has a unique set of circumstances. And a ‘one size fits all’ approach would be inappropriate, insensitive and ineffective.

Manage the logistics

Although responding to and managing the emotional impact of a suicide is paramount, organisations should also consider how to mitigate any logistical or operational challenges.

A workplace suicide may require areas to be secured, and employees may need to be relocated elsewhere on the premises. Operations might need to be temporarily halted, and new working arrangements may have to be put in place.

Crisis management will involve designated personnel informing the emergency services and the deceased’s family, and recording and reporting procedures should be observed.

Communicate carefully

Swift communication is essential following a suicide in the workplace. To avoid misinformation, organisations should inform employees of the death, and highlight the support in place and how it can be accessed.

Details about the manner of suicide should not be given, and employees should be discouraged from sharing information until all the details are known.

Terms like “committed suicide” and “failed suicide attempt” are regarded as outdated and judgemental. Instead, “died by suicide” and “took their own life” should be used.

Such communications are also a way management can express their own appreciation of, and sympathy for the deceased, and convey empathy to the workforce.

It is advisable to create templated letters for employees – and the media, if necessary – in advance of any incidents. This allows for a calm and considered statement – not always possible if the communication needs to be written in the immediate aftermath of a death.

Support the supporters

Care should be taken to ensure the mental health of HR, line and team managers is not compromised when managing employee suicide.

They are at the forefront of communications with the family of the deceased, and measures should be in place to guarantee they can access the support available to other employees. Dealing with suicide can take a heavy emotional toll if welfare monitoring is not in place.

One of their key responsibilities is to ensure the wishes of the deceased’s family are respected. This could relate to such matters as how much information the family want released to employees.

Suicide is not generally an exclusion on employer funded group life insurance policies, and HR managers should be equipped with the knowledge to answer any associated concerns families may have. WTW provide full support to HR contacts through the life claims process, so that payments can be made to beneficiaries as soon as possible.

The majority of Group Life insurers include a bereavement, counselling & probate support service to families and, again, it is important that HR enlighten the deceased’s relatives of all the ways an organisation can support them.

Don’t go it alone

Suicide is a very serious and sensitive issue and companies may feel challenged by how best to address it.

Fortunately, there a many organisations and charities that offer support for suicide prevention and death by suicide in the workplace.

These include The Samaritans, MIND, National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK, National Suicide Prevention Alliance and Support After Suicide Partnership.

The Suicide Prevention Toolkit, produced by Public Health England and Business in Community, is a free and downloadable resource designed for HR and line managers.

The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s A Manager’s Guide to Suicide Postvention in the Workplace is another very useful resource.

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