Of the countless challenges a manager will face, few will be as complex as a coworker’s suicide. Staff may feel bewildered, frightened, guilty, and sad. If the victim killed him/herself at your worksite, the emotional resonance of the tragedy can be overwhelming. When dealing with this profound trauma, your staff will look to you for guidance, reassurance, and leadership, even as you feel every bit as impacted by what happened, if not more.
Sadly, the likelihood that you may confront such a tragedy is on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workplace suicides increased by 62 percent in 2016, the highest rate since tracking began in 1992. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and white males accounted for seven out of every 10 suicides in 2016. Overdoses on the job from the non-medical use of drugs or alcohol have also increased by at least 25 percent since 2012. The repercussions of these rapidly growing losses are immeasurable, while the need for ample on-site support has become a workplace necessity.
Joanne Harpel, president of Coping After Suicide, worked as a corporate attorney until her brother’s death by suicide more than 20 years ago. Since then, she has dedicated herself to educating others on bereavement and “postvention,” the constructive steps companies can take in the aftermath of a suicide. Over the course of a decade, she developed education and outreach programs for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a nonprofit that raises awareness about mental health, funds research, and provides resources to those affected by suicide.
Harpel told The FruitGuys Magazine that the first step in dealing with the aftermath of a colleague’s suicide is to inform your staff and lead the conversation, carefully considering both what you say as well as how you say it.
Communicate With Care
If at all possible, share the news in person. Given the shocking and tragic nature of the event, it’s OK to let your own emotions show. Each person will have his or her own way of processing, and it may be helpful to ask what other support you can provide: Taking time for a shared moment of silence, creating a quiet space in the office to reflect, or offering access to grief counseling services. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can also be a helpful resource if your company has one.
No matter how you share the news and offer support, you must be mindful of the language you use. Harpel recommends referring to the guidelines provided by ReportingOnSuicide.org. Though initially designed for news media, these guidelines can provide helpful tools for managers in any field.
First, avoid sharing details, such as the location or method used. While some degree of curiosity is natural, such details are not the business of coworkers. Instead, Harpel says the manager should gently guide the conversation, focusing on “compassion for how much the person must have been suffering and…how [people in] the workplace can support one another.”
In addition, avoid the phrase “commit suicide,” as it implies a kind of crime “committed.” Instead, say that the person killed him/herself, took his/her own life, or died by suicide. NEVER refer to a “successful suicide” or talk about a “failed” attempt. This language can send a dangerously wrong message. Harpel also recommends that managers discourage speculation around the “cause” of the suicide. The causes of suicide are complex and multilayered and attempting to identify a single reason can have the dangerous result of normalizing suicide.
Finally, avoid sending the message that a deceased colleague is “in a better place.” Harpel notes that in the wake of suicide, people around the deceased are at a higher risk of suicide themselves, even those without suicidal thoughts. Attempting to qualify or explain the end result of suicide can have unintended repercussions, and managers should be mindful to avoid doing so when addressing this type of traumatic experience.
Offer Compassion & Resources
Showing compassion and understanding for your colleagues is imperative under any circumstances, but especially in the wake of a traumatic event. This means making everyone aware of your company’s mental health resources and other available support systems. (See “Tackling Depression in the Workplace.”) Be sure to share the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which immediately connects those in need with a crisis counselor: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 741-741.
Create a Supportive Culture
The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SRPC) has some helpful fact sheets aimed at managers, as well as coworkers, detailing their role in prevention and how to talk with a struggling colleague. “Stigma about mental illness can keep people from sharing their situation and seeking help,” says the SPRC guide for managers, “especially in their workplaces. Reassure your employees that mental health problems are real and treatable. Talk about mental illnesses in the same way you talk about physical illnesses.”
If you notice a colleague showing signs of depression or isolation, take the initiative of connecting with them. When you ask how someone is doing, it’s important to listen without judgment. If you’re a supervisor, be sure to stress that your primary concern is for the employee’s well-being, making it clear that you aren’t criticizing job performance. Take steps to remind all staff of the resources provided by your HR department and health insurance plan.
If you can, Harpel recommends sharing stories of recovery and rebound—people who have struggled with psychological pain or suicidal thoughts yet found a path to recovery and relief. Addressing tough topics like anxiety and depression is no longer taboo in office settings; instead, it can help to reduce stigma and encourage employees to take care of themselves. A growing number of companies are even recognizing the importance of “mental health days” to acknowledge the very real impact of stress and preempt feelings of burn-out.
Needless to say, the hope remains that you’ll never have to face the tragedy of suicide in your workplace, but understanding the dynamics of how to effectively and compassionately address the traumatic loss of a coworker, while being mindful and informed about mental health and suicide prevention, can help create a culture that supports all facets of your employees’ health.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog about Chinese philosophy.