clinical psychologist and suicide loss survivor. “Unfortunately, people
living with unbearable psychological pain don’t have physical
markers that we can see, like a cast or a bandage. So, very often,
they are able to mask their pain with a façade.”
Dr. Spencer-Thomas, who has helped lead the National Action
Alliance for Suicide Prevention and the American Association for
Suicidology, is one of the medical specialists who worked with
LifeSpeak to create a series of employee-facing videos that address
suicide in the workplace. According to her, one in 20 people think
about suicide on some level, every day.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING PROACTIVE
Given that co-workers spend about 40 hours per week with one
another, they are the first line of defence as they are most likely to
notice suicide warning signs from people they work with and, ideally,
they’ll be trained to take action. After familiarizing employees
with the signs to watch for, effective training will teach them how
to have conversations with someone who is considering suicide.
First and foremost, Dr. Spencer-Thomas advises them to directly,
yet compassionately, ask the person they’re concerned about whether
they are considering suicide. She said, “Don’t wait for the perfect
moment because it won’t come. It will always be scary and uncomfortable,
and you may feel embarrassed if you are wrong. But, what
if you err on the side of not asking and then they die?”
Employees of all levels need effective training that covers the following
■■ Erratic mood swings, uncontrolled and/or new, unusual
behaviour (i.e. consistent pessimism in a positive person, low
energy in an otherwise lively person).
■■ Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs.
■■ Indirect threats of self-harm, references to not being able to
continue or even nonchalant comments about ending their life.
■■ Preparatory behaviour such as getting wills and/or finances
Recognizing the signs and being able to take action are crucial as
it can help reduce the amount of guilt someone experiences when
a colleague ends their life. The survivors will still feel sorrow, but
at least they will feel they have done their best to prevent such an
incident from happening.
CULTURE OF CARING IS KEY TO PREVENTION
In order to be effective, suicide prevention training must be deeply
embedded into the workplace culture and socialized widely. This
requires that corporate leadership sets the tone that mental health
is a priority.
Dr. Spencer-Thomas said, “It requires more than just putting up
signs in break rooms and having lunch-and-learn workshops on
well-being; nothing parallels authentic, compassionate communication
from the top.”
While prevention is the best medicine, the other side of the coin is
postvention – the aftermath of suicide when friends or co-workers
may themselves be at risk. Employers need to proactively reach out
to employees whose loved one or colleague has died as a result of
suicide. Strategies and tactics to counsel and support those survivors
through the traumatic experience are extremely vital.
“No one is mentally prepared to deal with the aftermath of
a suicide. People tend to want to pretend that it didn’t happen;
meanwhile it’s on everyone’s mind and not for a short period of
time,” said Dr. Spencer-Thomas.
Even small but caring gestures can help them cope, such as
bringing a prepared meal and showing up at a memorial service.
Avoid statements that may put pressure on them to move on more
quickly; everyone’s timetable for grief is different and it’s important
to give them time to work through it.
CREATE A FRAMEWORK OF SUPPORT
While it’s critical for all businesses, providing a framework of
support for an employee’s job performance, health and mental
well-being tends to be easier for established, stable companies.
Often, a structured environment and the camaraderie of larger
teams can provide a sense of community, support and purpose.
These companies usually have HR teams and comprehensive
employee assistance programs in place that can offer critical support
to someone whether they are affected by suicide, suspect
someone with whom they work might be considering suicide or
are considering suicide themselves. Businesses that can’t or don’t
provide the stability or resources are at risk of increased suicide
among employees who may be suffering from personal or workrelated
In addition to assisting struggling employees in the office, progressive
employers should also consider the health and mental
well-being of remote workers. With the rise of the gig economy,
the traditional workforce is changing to include more independent
contractors and freelancers who may work from another location.
Their performance also impacts a company’s culture and productivity,
and wellness programs need to be adaptable to their needs.
Another important group to consider is prospective employees,
according to Dr. Spencer-Thomas. “We operate in a brain-based
economy. To be viable, managers in every industry must address
issues surrounding mental illness and suicide if they want to
recruit and retain young talent who value employers that respect
and encourage their total well-being. Empathetically addressing
these issues sends a message to potential employees that the
employer cares about the well-being of its workers.”
While it’s not an easy topic, suicide can’t be ignored. As with any
unexpected illness or death in the workplace, it needs to be treated
with concern, compassion and open communication. n
Danny Weill is vice president of LifeSpeak.
OFTEN, A STRUCTURED
ENVIRONMENT AND THE
CAMARADERIE OF LARGER
TEAMS CAN PROVIDE A
SENSE OF COMMUNITY,
SUPPORT AND PURPOSE.
48 ❚ APRIL 2019 ❚ HR PROFESSIONAL