Tag Archives: anxiety

Employers’ Role in Preventing Suicide

American adults working full time spend an average of 47 hours per week at their workplace (Gallup 2013). For those dealing with a mental health issue or thoughts of suicide, employers have an important opportunity to create safeguards to protect those who may be at risk.

There are many reasons why an employee may keep concerns about his or her mental health private. Stigma, fear of losing one’s job, and lack of awareness can prevent an individual from seeking help. It can also prevent someone who is concerned about a co-worker from reaching out when they may be needed most.

Research shows that 70% of those who die by suicide tell someone or give warning signs before taking their own life. Coworkers see each other every day and are more apt to notice changes in mood and behavior. For this reason, they play a key role in identifying potential suicide risk and mental health crises in their peers.

See also: Blueprint for Suicide Prevention  

Mental health education and awareness programs can help to create an environment where employees feel comfortable reaching out for help and should be a primary component of workplace wellness initiatives. Employers can implement the following strategies that not only connect their employees with help but also promote a culture of mental health awareness:

Health Promotion

Health promotion programs enable employees to take action to better their health. While employers often use health promotion to encourage physical health changes, employers can use health promotion to discuss mental health issues and encourage a culture of employee engagement and connection, as well. National Depression Screening Day, held on Oct. 6 this year, raises awareness for depression and related mood and anxiety disorders. The annual campaign provides employers with an opportunity to start the conversation with employees about mental health.

Online Screenings

Anonymous online screenings are a proven way to reach those in need and help direct them to appropriate assistance. Employees can take a screening to determine if the symptoms they are experiencing are consistent with a mental health disorder (i.e., depression, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, an eating disorder or a substance use disorder). Upon completion of a screening, employees are provided with immediate results and linked back to employee assistance program or local community resources. If your organization does not currently have an online screening program, a more general anonymous screening can be taken here.

Suicide Prevention Awareness

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released data showing a 24% increase on average of suicide rates from 1999 to 2014. It is critical that employees learn how to talk with someone about mental health, understand how to recognize warning signs of suicide and know the actions to take to get themselves or a coworker the help they need.

The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Workplace Task Force champions suicide prevention as a national priority and cultivates effective programming and resources within the workplace. The task force provides support for employers and motivates them to implement a comprehensive, public health approach to suicide prevention, intervention and “postvention” in the workplace. Programs like the Workplace Task Force are important sources of knowledge and assistance for employers.

See also: 6 Things to Do to Prevent Suicides  

Employers can provide resources such as Stop a Suicide Today, which educates individuals about the warning signs of suicide and steps to take if they are concerned about a coworker or loved one. There are also other lifesaving resources, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK (8255)).

The World Health Organization estimates that depression will be the second leading cause of disability by 2020. Employers have the option to act as catalysts for early detection and prevention when it comes to mental health disorders and suicide, which can lead to improved quality of life for individuals, as well as for the organization itself.

Breaking the Silence on Mental Health

Shh, it’s time for another round of “let’s discuss depression or suicide in the workplace.” That’s right, shh. After all, we aren’t supposed to discuss these issues. If we do, someone else may try to commit suicide. If we hush up the problem, maybe it will go away.

So, help me to understand why we tolerate this silence with mental illness and not with any other medical condition. I think it is because mental health is a bit more mysterious and scarier than most other conditions.

But mental health does account for a large percentage of the costs related to lost productivity ($51 billion). It generates direct costs of treatment of $26 billion a year[1] — and “absence, disability and lost productivity related to mental illness cost employers more than four times the cost of employee medical treatment.”[2]

We need to get over our fear and get the discussions out in the open. Only then will we have a chance to break the cycle.

The goal of breaking the silence is already occurring on the high school level and is showing results. I realize that this is a different population, teen-agers, but talking about it really does matter in prevention. This most recently occurred in a high school in Crystal Lake, Ill., after two teen-age friends took their lives. The school and community leaders made a point of getting information to other students about the warning signs so that they could possibly identify those in danger and encouraged parents to talk with their teens about their grief. Leaders also provided grief counselors onsite and gave the students different options for grieving, which included holding vigils, providing groups and allowing for other forums of expression.

This is an excellent model that can be adapted for the workplace in partnership with your employee assistance program (EAP). Here are some things employers can do for their workplaces after a suicide:

  • Openly discuss suicide and offer grief groups to anyone directly or indirectly involved with the people who took their lives. Make it okay to talk about the suicide. For more information on steps employers might take, go to “A Manager’s Guide to Suicide Postvention in the Workplace.”
  • Provide information about the warning signs so that employees can help identify others who might be at risk. Make sure that employees and their family members get information about resources that they can access for themselves, their family members or other co-workers. And stress the confidential nature of these sources. A great first step is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK (8255)).

The best defense, however, is a good offense. To encourage prevention, I suggest the following:

  • Create a “mental health/wellness” friendly workplace that involves openly discussing mental health and stress and making sure that employees know that there is confidential help available.
  • Provide employees and managers with training on signs of depression, anxiety, etc. and encourage them to seek help if they or a colleague is showing any of these signs.
  • Have your EAP visible through consistent promotional efforts using print, email and social media.
  • Make sure that the company’s benefits plans have good mental health coverage.

I have been lucky enough to have spent the last 36 years in the field helping individuals and organizations become more open to dealing with psychological issues that may interfere with their professional or personal growth. And I have been amazed at how successful treatment can be when the issue is confronted head-on.

As leaders in the insurance industry, those of you who subscribe to this blog are trusted advisers to the leadership and decision makers in organizations of all kinds. I therefore implore you to use these relationships to encourage them to face mental health in an open and forthright manner. Only when people are able to openly seek out help for mental health related concerns in the same manner that they seek out medical treatment for other issues will we be successful.

[1] Managed Care Magazine (2006, Spring) Depression in the Workplace Cost Employers Billions Each Year: Employers Take Lead in Fighting Depression.

[2] Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, A Mentally Healthy Workforce—It’s Good for Business, (2006), www.workplacementalhealth.org.

Five Things Employers Need to Know About Mental Health

“The workplace is the last crucible of sustained human contact for many of the 30,000 people who kill themselves each year in the United States. A coworker’s suicide has a deep, disturbing impact on work mates. For managers, such tragedies pose challenges no one covered in management school.” (Shellenbarger, 2001)1

Five things employers need to know about workplace mental health and suicide include some bad news…

  1. Depression is a top driver of health care costs to employers.2 3 Depression represents employers' highest per capita medical spending. (The per-capita annual cost of depression is significantly more than that for hypertension or back problems, and comparable to that for diabetes or heart disease. People with depression also have more sick days than people suffering from other conditions.)4
  2. If we take a snapshot of any workplace at any given point in time, at least one in five people will have a diagnosable mental health condition.5 The most common are mood disorders like depression or substance abuse disorders like alcohol abuse.
  3. The majority of people who die by suicide are of working age. While other groups’ suicide rates are holding steady or decreasing, the rates for men and women in the middle years have increased significantly over the last decade.

And some good news…

  1. By engaging in simple preventative steps (e.g., stress management or depression screenings) anyone can help maintain their own mental health. By learning practical tactics (e.g., becoming suicide prevention gatekeepers or referring coworkers to employee assistance services) employees can help promote the mental health and safety of others.6 7
  2. A comprehensive and evidence-based approach to suicide prevention and mental health promotion exists,8 is cost-effective9 and gives employers a clear guide on what to do. By being “visible, vocal and visionary” leaders, employers can set the expectation that a culture of health and safety is a priority and that mental health promotion and suicide prevention are a critical part of that priority.

While managers often feel responsible for the well-being of the people they supervise, very few have been given any substantial training in how to identify people in a suicide crisis and how to link them to life-saving care. Employers can play a critical role in closing this gap through a comprehensive approach.

A five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate among 45- to 54-year-olds increased 20% from 1999 to 2004, while rates for youth and elderly persons are decreasing. The Surgeon General’s National Strategy for Suicide Prevention targets employers as critical stakeholders in the prevention of suicide.10

While suicide prevention may seem to be too intensive for workplaces to take on, there are many upstream prevention strategies that do not take much effort but yield tremendous results. Here are low-cost, high impact strategies employers can take to promote mental health and prevent suicide:

  1. Promote the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This free resource (1-800-273-8255 [TALK]) is available to employees 24/7 and used by both people in crisis and those who are trying to support them. The line connects to local crisis call centers and is answered by certified volunteers, most of whom have had more training and experience in de-escalating suicidal behavior than many of our mental health professionals.
  2. Participate in National Screening Days.  Whenever we can identify a health condition early in its course, we are in a much stronger position to prevent it from escalating. Employers can help coordinate screening days as a part of a larger national awareness effort. Mental Health Screening offers workplaces promotional and screening tools for National Depression Screening Day (October), National Eating Disorders Awareness Program (February), National Alcohol Screening Day (April), and National Anxiety Disorders Screening Day (May). In addition, their WorkplaceResponse program gives employees an anonymous opportunity to self-screen for depression, bipolar disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, generalized anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and alcohol use disorders.  These screenings offer immediate results and referrals to an organization’s employee assistance program and community-based resources.
  3. Reward Mental Wellness. For example, the Working Minds program offers a contest every year to workplaces that have developed mentally healthy policies and practices that demonstrate positive outcomes like retention, lower absenteeism, and higher employee satisfaction. These workplaces then become the model for others.
  4. Change the Conversation Through Social Marketing.  By showing models of people who have experienced significant psychological distress and who have recovered and are thriving, employers can show that struggles are normal and increase a sense of efficacy among the hopeless. For example, workplaces can develop a multimedia campaign that lets people know they are not alone if they are thinking about suicide and that many resources exist to help. If the company’s leaders are courageous enough to model this message, the culture of the organization usually shifts accordingly.
  5. Offer Educational Programs on Mental Illness. Employee assistance professionals can provide “lunch-and-learn” sessions that increase awareness about the signs and symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, and other mental illnesses that can lead to suicide.  These presentations should share how treatments are effective while dissipating misperceptions people have that create barriers to care.
  6. Training Staff to Become Suicide Prevention Gatekeepers. In addition to offering general training, workplaces should train key people in suicide prevention gatekeeper methods. The concept is similar to CPR – train lay people to know the warning signs of a life-threatening situation and how to sustain a person’s life until they can be linked to professional care. Many models for this training exist, including Working Minds, QPR, and ASIST. For more information, review the gatekeeper matrix on the Suicide Prevention Resource Center website.

As our workplaces accelerate from the industrial age to the information age and beyond, we come to increasingly rely on our mental muscle to get us through our workday. Like any other muscle, our mental muscle can get injured or fatigued, and we can experience high levels of distress, sometimes leading to a suicide crisis. Workplaces can prepare for this in many ways and develop a comprehensive approach to reduce suicide risk and promote mental resiliency.

For more information, visit WorkingMinds.org. Working Minds is one of the first programs in the country to provide workplaces with a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention. Working Minds is a priority program of the Carson J Spencer Foundation based in Golden, Colorado. In a little more than a lunch hour, employees at all levels of a workplace can be taught how to identify warning signs and risk factors and help link distressed coworkers to appropriate care.

1 Schellenbarger, S. (2001, June 13). Impact of colleague’s suicide is strongly felt in workplace. The Wall Street Journal.

2 Mental Health America (n.d.) Depression in the Workplace.

3 Witters, D. (2013, July 24). Depression Costs U.S. Workplaces $23 Billion in Absenteeism.

4 Managed Care Magazine (2006, Spring) Depression in the Workplace Cost Employers Billions Each Year: Employers Take Lead in Fighting Depression.

5 Gray, T. (2004) ValueOptions Articles – Managers.

6 Paul, R. & Spencer-Thomas, S. (2012). Changing Workplace Culture to End the Suicide Standstill. National Council Magazine. (2), 126-127.

7 Spencer-Thomas, S. (2012). Developing a workplace suicide prevention program. Journal of Employee Assistance, 42(1), 12-15.

8 National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (2013) Comprehensive Blueprint for Workplace Suicide Prevention. Retrieved from http://actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/task-force/workplace/cspp

9 National Institute of Mental Health (2007, September) Workplace Depression Screening, Outreach and Enhanced Treatment Improves Productivity, Lowers Employer Costs.

10 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. (2001). National strategy for suicide prevention: Goals and objectives for action, p. 67.