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Suicide not only impacts family members, but also colleagues across the company for which the individual worked

By Danny Weill 


People don’t often talk about suicide. It’s a difficult topic that, for many, is both awkward and frightening. Talking about it only after it happens is too little, too late. When it happens to someone in the workplace, the mental well-being of other colleagues can be at stake and have a negative, long-term impact on the company’s productivity.

According to Statistics Canada, approximately 4,000 Canadians die by suicide annually, mostly by those between the ages of 40 to 59 years old. While the topic is not an easy one, employers and human resources personnel must take any necessary measures to address suicide prevention and postvention in the workplace.

“Outside of work, suicidal thoughts could be fueled by relationship or financial issues. At work, if the person strongly identifies with their work self, suicidal thoughts may stem from a humiliating experience such as a demotion or bullying, or from a sense of unmanageable expectations,” said Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, 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 warning signs:

  • 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 in order.


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 work-related issues.

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.


Danny Weill is vice president of LifeSpeak.




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