When developing a training element designed to help those affected and bereaved by suicide, for secondary schools in Australia, it occurred to me that the skills being learnt could be translated into the workplace. It certainly makes sense. The workplace is a closed community, just like a school, and we spend a good deal of our lives’ at work, jut like we spent a good deal of our youth at school. If distress, a major cause of suicidal thinking, is to be noticed, it will be within these communities.
Suicide is an unspoken topic, and yet there is no doubt that the death of a colleague by suicide will impact many across the workplace community to some degree, and not just in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. The effects and affects of suicide can be felt months, even years later.
I started to test the water to see if this type of training was something viable with the network of people I know, both personally and professionally working in a range of businesses and services across the sectors. What surprised me was that each one had a story, or indeed two or three stories of suicide in their workplace. And, more astonishingly, was their eagerness to talk. It didn’t take me long to realise that this was probably the first time that they had actually had the opportunity to talk. As one said it was good to talk to “get it off my chest after all this time”. Some were sharing their accounts many years after the suicide of a colleague (or colleagues), an associate, or a family member of a colleague.
For example, the story a Brother of a work acquaintance who couldn’t cope with the stress of his job and went sick with depression and anxiety. Human Resources were aware of the reasons for his sickness absence, and remained in contact, but only in as much as to encourage him to return to work. Or at least that was the perception. He felt that he was “not being listened to” and being “forced back to work”. He didn’t feel that the company was taking his illness seriously, which pushed him further into desperation. He took his own life rather than face going back to work.
The tragedy of suicide is its ability to affect many other people – the ripple effect. The Brother’s death by suicide will have been felt across the workplace community – including the contacts he made on behalf of the company (customers, suppliers, associates etc.). The Human Resource staff working to help his return to work may have felt guilt that they perhaps could have done even more to support him. His Sister, however, was angry at the way he had been treated by the company, and although she didn’t freely admit to apportion blame, I sensed that she had thought about it.
This reaction is not uncommon as a conversation with a friend, a Human Resources Manager, revealed. A company she worked for had experienced three employee suicides over a year. It was a large multi-national company and the number of suicides was in proportion with number of staff employed. The family of one employee did blame the company and made every effort to seek justice. The news of each employee’s suicide was upsetting enough, but it was the subsequent dealings with the family of this employee that caused the Human Resources colleague involved with the case to go off sick.
Whether or not the family were justified in making this claim is irrelevant. They were looking for answers to a death that they couldn’t explain. As we all do. Why would anyone want to take their own life? Suicide is complex: it is something that we cannot easily comprehend, and yet it is something that, as humans, we have the capacity to think about and the ability to carry out if the distress we feel becomes unbearable. You don’t have to be mentally ill to think about suicide. Distress – extreme stress – is the key factor for suicidal thinking.
The impact on staff cannot be underestimated, and its effects can be felt long-term as a Director of an engineering company, who lost two of his staff by suicide, explains. After 20 plus years, he is still unable to make sense of why these two ‘good’ employees wanted to end their lives. The subsequent economic effects notwithstanding, it was the emotional affect that he recalls as the most significant. For him, the impact of these deaths was more palpable than the suicide of a relative whom he rarely had contact with.
And then there is my own experience. I was visiting a Mental Health team as part of a research study. I left the team on Friday afternoon wishing everyone a good weekend, and returned on Monday morning to learn that one of the team had taken his life. The impact on the team was devastating. He had been a well-liked and respected colleague. No one suspected that there was anything wrong. These experienced Mental Health professionals began to doubt their ability to spot the signs of distress. But perhaps it was more to do with the culture of work that let them down, rather than their skills. The belief and perception that Mental Health workers ‘just get on with the job’ of looking after others, and that they are immune to distress.
These shared stories highlight the need for a change in work culture. A culture that is more open to talking about distress, and more able to help if it is recognised. Business has a responsibility for employee’s health and wellbeing, which is not the stuff considered when we ‘do business’. But the fact is, consideration of employee health and wellbeing actually increases productivity and decreases absenteeism. There are simple ways this can be achieved from both an organisational and personal approach. Training key people to recognise the signs and to build a supportive and responsive environment, and raising employee awareness of distress and how to help themselves and their collegaues.
The “Hey, are you OK?” campaign (#HeyareyouOK?) aims to do just that: To recognise distress and to find ways of seeking help and support – before suicide becomes an option. Noticing a colleague acting differently – not seeming himself or herself – and asking “Hey, are you OK?” can make all the difference The proactive nature of the #HeyareyouOK? Campaign, coupled with a workplace community approach of support through Postvention planning and Suicide prevention can help the effects and affects of suicide.
Dr. Gill Green, CEO of STORM Skills Training