When Suicide Touches the Workplace
As employers, we strive to provide an empowering, supportive and safe environment for our employees; using programs such as EAPs, shared-leave programs, etc., provides the opportunity to offer support and resources when employees face personal crises. No matter what programs we put in place, we cannot save everyone. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. With 129 deaths a day, most American workers will be touched by suicide in their lives. While the idea of discussing such a tragedy is overwhelming, doing so can help those left behind gain closure and handle the feelings of guilt and sadness that inevitably come when a person dies by suicide.
The first step to helping your employees manage their grief and recovery is to acknowledge the suicide. It is tempting to handle your own personal grief, go on with business as usual, and avoid a meeting where this grief becomes public. Standing in front of your employees to address the death may feel like the last thing in the world you want to do, but it’s the first step in restoring your workplace and the mental health of all those left behind. Acknowledge the tragedy; acknowledge your own feelings; and acknowledge the feelings of your employees. Suicide often leaves us feeling grief stricken, guilty and alone. Providing a space where your and your employees’ emotions are acknowledged and legitimized gives room for people to not feel alone and to seek support if they need it.
When addressing the suicide with your employees, it is important to allow them to grieve in their own way. Understand that every person handles grief, particularly related to something as tragic as suicide, differently, and it is important to acknowledge this. Some will seem to handle it better than others, some may seem over dramatic. No matter how your employees handle the news, you should be prepared with a crisis intervention policy and procedures to help everyone through the situation. In addition, you should address the funeral. Let employees know when and where, as well as providing leave so they may attend.
The initial shock of suicide is disruptive and obvious; you’ll see the reactions and the needs of your employees and can readily offer support. While things can quickly seem to go back to normal, the after-effects of suicide are lasting and subtle and it is imperative that your support does not end after the funeral. Make sure that support and education surrounding suicide are available. People often seek to understand and struggle to handle the guilt associated with losing someone to suicide. Support can be offered through programs specific to the loss or through stronger promotion of your employee assistance program (EAP), allowing employees and management to know that resources are available if they need.
Finally, when handling an employee suicide, do not forget self-care. Servant-leaders strive to create an environment that brings out the best in their employees and in times of crisis this can lead them to taking the role of care-taker. While there is nothing wrong with that, it is important that you don’t lose yourself and sacrifice your mental health in the process. Never forget, as much as your employees may need you, you are also experiencing a loss. Take advantage of the programs offered by your organization that are designed to provide support and closure. Remember, you cannot help others when you are not taking care of yourself.
Suicide is something we hope will never touch our lives, but, if that unwanted situation does occur, it is important to provide respect, acknowledgement, and support for those left behind. Understanding and adequate support will lead your organization back to the safe and caring workplace you strive to provide. If you or a member of your management team feel that an employee is at risk for suicide, there are resources available. You can find resources on suicide prevention at http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/best-practices/ or call 1-800-SUICIDE at any time to get help assessing a situation and ensuring your employees are safe.