Warning signs of suicidal behavior at work

In honor of National Suicide Prevention Week, Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas instructs HR leaders on what to look for

Warning signs of suicidal behavior at work

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week in the United States.

For nearly 50 years, various health and charitable organizations have conducted an annual campaign to inform and engage the public about suicide prevention. The goal is to reduce the stigma surrounding the topic, support those who have attempted suicide and encourage the pursuit of mental health assistance.

As of 2020, suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That year – the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – there were just under 46,000 suicides in the country and 1.2 million suicide attempts. The rate of suicide is highest in middle-aged white men: men died by suicide nearly 4x more than women in 2020.

Read more: ‘His death rocked my world’

There’s a correlation between that statistic and this – the construction industry has one of the highest suicide rates of any industry. In 2016, the suicide rate for men in construction and extraction occupations was almost twice the total suicide rate for civilian working men (16-64 years old) in 32 states and five times greater than the rate for all fatal work-related injuries in the construction industry in 2018, according to the CDC.

The construction industry has galvanized around that data, seeking solutions for its workforce by reaching out to Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas. A clinical psychologist and mental health advocate, she currently serves as president of United Suicide Survivors International and co-chair of the International Association of Suicide Prevention.

It's a cause near and dear to her heart – she lost her brother to suicide in 2004.

“His death rocked my world,” Spencer-Thomas told HRD. “In grief, I went searching for answers and learned the majority of people who die by suicide are just like my brother. They make one attempt and its fatal. Most of those men have never reached out for mental health services.”

Mental health support has been on the rise since the pandemic, with employees across every industry demanding increased resources from their employers. That’s led to an increase in wellness benefits, such as free counseling, subscriptions to Headspace, Calm and other meditation apps, more paid time off (PTO) for employees to unwind, etc.

Additionally, HR leaders have been encouraging managers to maintain consistent communication with their employees, even just to check in. Frequent conversations, whether in-person or virtually, are crucial to catching signs that employees may have suicidal tendencies.

Those signs include an uptick in absenteeism and a pattern of errors, mistakes or near misses, Spencer-Thomas says. “Your brain goes into the darkest downward spiral and it’s very hard to wane your brain off that,” she says. “When called upon to make difficult decisions and solve problems, your brain is distracted.”

Another sign of suicidal tendencies is irritation, specifically people who can usually deal with a lot of stress but now fly off the handle at the smallest provocation. In male-dominated industries in particular, depression often gets expressed through aggression, which typically gets people in trouble with HR. “It’s a sign people aren’t feeling well on the inside – hurt people hurt people,” Spencer-Thomas says. “If it’s uncharacteristic of an employee to be so agitated, it’s another time for managers or HR to check in.”

Accoding to Spencer-Thomas, sleep (or lack thereof) is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to suicidal despair. Some depressed people stop sleeping, and others may want to sleep all the time, yet never feel rested. “We don’t have shame talking about sleep like we do other mental health symptoms, so if someone’s not sleeping well, that’s a doorway into a discussion about their mental well-being,” Spencer-Thomas says.

During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, HRD America commissioned a survey from professional social network Blind that indicated even some of the biggest companies in the U.S. aren’t doing enough for their employees. The results were startling: only 41% of employees believe their employer supports their mental health. More than half (55%) said they haven’t used any mental health benefits offered by their employer, and 13% believe their employer doesn’t offer any mental health benefits.

Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of employees wish their employer offered more mental health benefits. Walmart topped the list, with 95% of employees wishing the largest employer in the country offered more mental health resources. The retailer was followed by Goldman Sachs (85%), Menlo Park, CA-based Robinhood (81%), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (80%) and T-Mobile (80%).

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