How HR should react to suicide in the workplace

One expert in the field shares his thoughts on how employers can support workers who have been affected by suicide.

Suicide remains one of the most taboo topics in today’s society but – despite a widespread reluctance to discuss the issue – one industry expert says employers have a responsibility to offer support if it impacts their workplace.

“How an employer responds to an employee in times like this communicates clearly the true mission, vision and values of the organization,” says Glenn Robitaille, director of ethic and spiritual care at Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care.

“Those affected and those secondarily affected are all drawing conclusions about the sincerity of the organization and its rhetoric around such things as team,” he continues.

“The impact goes well beyond the practical supports in the moment and effect the perception of how important the well-being of its workers actually is to the organization. Trust is either earned or lost at such times.”

While most workplaces will never have to handle the after-effects of a suicide, Robitaille says being prepared, having a plan in place, and knowing how to talk about suicide is of utmost importance.

“To begin with, it is not wise to use the phrase ‘commits suicide’ – people commit crimes,” says Robitaille. “With suicide, the person has ‘died by suicide’ or has ‘taken his or her own life.’”

When it comes to helping employees who may be grieving the loss of a loved one, Robitaille says it’s common for employers to feel confused about what the appropriate response should be and often end up avoiding contact or sticking the standard responses.

“The important thing for employers to do is to show up,” he says. “If visitation and the funeral are open, the appropriate colleagues need to show up. The grieving employee will remember every person who does.”

Ontario-based Robitaille says clear communication of support is also vital when the employee returns to work.

“It is usually good to meet with the person and ask what they might need to make the next several weeks easier,” he advises. “Specific information about what they can do if they are struggling in the moment, like having a place to get some privacy or a person who will listen to them non-judgementally, are helpful.”
Robitaille says employers should also ask if the employee needs help accessing the EAP or community resources and respect their answers.  However, he also points out that an employee’s needs may change over time.

“It is important to note that the early effects of suicide on the family are less about grief and more about trauma,” he tells HRM. “When the numbness and/or increased cortisol and adrenalin production go down they may have a different need than they did early on.”

In situations where an employee has taken their own life and co-workers are left reeling from the news, Robitaille says it’s crucial to address the situation openly and immediately.

“It is important for colleagues and co-workers who need to debrief to have that opportunity as soon as reasonably possible,” he tells HRM.

Robitaille is the lead for a trauma support team at Waypoint, which provides this service to staff and patients in the wake of a significant death using the principles of Psychological First Aid.  

“This is a method that focuses on psycho-education by providing information on what individuals may experience in the hours and days directly following a loss,” he says. “It is also a time to coach colleagues and co-workers on the importance of showing up emotionally and physically when appropriate.”

According to Robitaille, whatever has been the norm of the relationship in the past should inform the level of presence in the here and now.

“Colleagues and co-workers need to know that normal support is deeply meaningful to those who are grieving.  They aren’t going to say anything to make the loss less tragic and no one is expecting that they should.”
Waypoint will be hosting an event to mark International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day on Saturday, November 19th. The gathering is free and everyone is welcome.

Anyone who wishes to access support or counselling in relation to suicide and loss can reach out to one of the following resources:

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention // 204 784 4073
Canadian Mental Health Association // 613 745 7750
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