Suicides at work – what can HR do?

After a police officer took her own life in the workplace, we spoke to one HR pro who has first-hand experience handling similar situations

Early last week, a police officer took her own life at a Melbourne police station.
The leading senior constable’s death was one of a string of police suicides; according to Fairfax Media, more than 40 police officers have taken their own lives since 1990 in Victoria alone.
Speaking to HRD magazine, Gary Taylor – an HR director with personal experience in the aftermath of a workplace suicide – identified suicide and mental health as “a growing phenomenon”.

“Although global suicide numbers are relatively small, suicide is considered the leading cause of violent death in many countries,” he said.

In the US, almost 100 people of working age commit suicide daily. Meanwhile, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that suicide figures in Australia have reached a ten year high, with seven successful attempts daily.

“The reasons for suicide are complex, no matter where they take place,” said Christine Montier, CMO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Usually, many factors are at play.”

What can HR do?

Taylor suggested that HR put a preventative strategy in place, which should:
  • Promote awareness, particularly among colleagues; there are several ‘telltale’ symptoms of depression and suicidal behaviour that can be detected by untrained co-workers who have been made aware of what to look out for.

    For example, one ‘telltale’ sign is talking repeatedly about death, exhibiting withdrawal behaviour, and/or rage. While employers don’t want to foster a ‘whisper culture’, an awareness campaign can form a practical component of a ‘we care’ philosophy.
  • Promote resources for suicidal employees. These allow those affected to share their situation with trained counsellors, even if only by phone.

    Most employee assistance programs (EAPs) have a hotline, if not resources for face to face counselling. These hotlines can help to ‘talk down’ a suicidal individual and provide helpful coping tools.
  • Facilitate referral to professionals. If an EAP is not affordable, HR staff can facilitate appropriate access to professionals, and advise on health insurance funding options for treatment.

    Confidence is paramount, but can be assured. The help of organised labour can be an important step in gaining credentials for this strategy.
HR should also have a strategy in place to deal with the devastating impact of a suicide at the workplace itself.

“I have personally had to handle two such incidents,” said Taylor. “No one really prepares you for:
  • The reactions of colleagues who knew the individual personally
  • The disruption and trauma of having forensic teams onsite
  • The protocol for touching, covering or moving a body which is in sight of many people
  • The press wanting to release the name of the individual before you have notified the next of kin
  • What a suicide at work (and the way you respond) says about your company culture.”
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