“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…
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
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.
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…
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.