Suicides at work – what can HR do?

by Nicola Middlemiss21 Oct 2015
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.”


  • by Bernie Althofer 21/10/2015 11:26:25 AM

    I don't think anyone really thinks that they will have to respond to the death of a work colleague, let alone respond when the death is a suicide. In some cases, the existence of long held taboos and beliefs make it difficult to discuss such issues.

    In recent times there have been a number of individuals and organisations being proactive in relation to mental health issues. In addition, a number of organisations have either inhouse or outsourced EAP/EAS services combined with Peer Support Officers. In some cases, some organisations have engaged the services of Chaplains.

    It seems that a variety of services are required to meet the diverse needs of managers and workers. It does appear that managers and workers are under increasing pressure from internal and external sources and for some, the constant struggle means that it becomes more difficult to see a way out. When a workplace culture is such that individuals are 'condemned' for seeking help, and when they go 'underground' to seek assistance without the knowledge of the organisation, there may well be some ticking timebombs.

    Whilst HR might be the delegated organisational owner of various policies and procedures, line managers and supervisors play a pivotal role in supporting individuals. Unfortunately in some organisations, managers may be rewarded for operational results and the 'people factor' becomes all too hard. If line managers and supervisors are not trained to recognise potential signs of an individual being 'at risk', and if they don't know how to respond, then it is possible that the 'at risk' employee may seek solace elsewhere.

    Some organisations have provided extensive training to all workers in relation to mental health. However, this needs to be ongoing and specific training needs to be provided to support personnel who may be the first point of contact. It seems that some organisations could benefit from scenario based learning so that any issues or barriers impacting on readiness can be identified and improvements made. Even as recent as yesterday I was discussing this issue and was not surprised that the individual indicated they would not know how to respond to a suicide. I suspect that in days past, when a suicide occurred, police investigated, a report was prepared and people went back to work. Now, if there is an indication that it is work related, a broader range of individuals are involved in the investigation, more managers and workers become 'involved' in the investigation depending on the issues identified e.g. bullying etc, and in some cases, there may be an impact on individual and family relationships apart from the relatives of the person who took their own life.

    Organisations need to have open and transparent discussions about the hazard or risk factors that could contribute to a suicide. Policies and procedures may well be in place. However, if the culture is such that mental health is not 'talked about', and those who have a mental health issue don't feel safe discussing their concerns, little will change.

  • by Marc Rowley 21/10/2015 4:26:54 PM

    I agree with Bernie's comments. Never has the old adage 'prevention is better than cure' held truer that with such tragic scenarios. Whilst suicide is a complex issue I think there are some minimum strategies that HR and organisations can implement.
    Firstly having support available through a free and confidential EAP is a minimum must- have. Vigorously promoting such a service and normalising access can help break down the barriers to accessing support .
    Secondly, having some training in recognising, responding and referring with regard to mental health issues can also be immensely beneficial especially for those in leadership and contact officer/peer supporter roles. This training can not only build on participants skills, but reduce the anxiety often associated with 'saying the wrong thing' or 'making it worse'. Most EAP providers should be able to provide this. Linking this with excellent initiatives like RUOK Day often helps consolidate the message.
    In this way, both sufferers and potential helpers/supporters in the workplace can be encouraged to address these issues early, intervene and prevent a tragic end for individuals, their work colleagues and the organisation. .

  • by Bernie Althofer 22/10/2015 3:16:52 PM

    I think that in some cases, some people have forgotten how to communicate with people, even on the most delicate of topics that may be impacting on them in the workplace. Having the confidence to go to a manager helps especially when the manager is prepared to listen and hear what is being said, as well as displaying empathy. When workers at any level belief that their words or concerns are falling on deaf ears, or the person to whom they are speaking is not interested, or trys to 'fob' them off, they may withdraw further into their shell. This is a bad thing when they may have already made a decision to come forward after some time.

    In terms of an EAP/EAS that is supported by an internal Peer Support Officer structure, it is important that managers and workers know and understand the parameters of operation e.g. what is 'confidential'; what mandatory reporting obligations might exist (if any); and for some, whether or not the information raised in a 'confidential' discussion can be used during an investigation. Some people approach support personnel with the "I have a friend and this is happening to them" opening. Support personnel can and do play a positive role in supporting managers and workers who may from time to time seek information or advice about a mental health issue. Where a support person is identified as trustworthy, empathetic and supporting, those in need may seek this person out. Again, ongoing training is required for support personnel so they themselves know the limitations of their role e.g. not acting as a qualified person.

    As I have moved around and talked with managers and workers over the years, I have found that many are under increasing pressure from internal and external sources, and some are more resilient than others. In the majority of cases, people have relayed complex issues that impact on their mental health. In some cases, they have only been looking for someone to talk to outside their organisation. In some cases, they have clearly indicated that they don't seek internal support is that anything they say is reported 'upstairs'. It is my observation that where managers and workers at any level believe that their immediate manager (at any level) is on their side, then they will open up. It is also my observation that when 'confidential' discussions are not 'confidential', the real issues will not be raised. Instead, the person skirts around the real 'facts' and are reluctant to have their name raised (depending on the organisation and the culture).

    Managers and workers need to be given a range of options where they can access support. Managers may seek support in managing a worker or workers with a mental health issue, and workers may seek support so they can manage their own mental health. Workplace cultures need to change so that individuals don't feel threatened, intimidated or even ostracised for trying to look after themselves.

Most Read