With the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino, CA, fresh on people’s minds, workplace violence has received major media coverage, but little to no attention is paid to deaths by suicide even though rates in the U.S. have gone up considerably in recent years. Suicides claim an average of 36,000 lives annually, and, while most people take their lives in or near home, suicide on the job is also increasing.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that workplace suicides rose to 282 in 2013, the highest level since the numbers have been reported. In 2014, the suicide rate went down slightly to 271, but that is still the second highest level. The annual average number of suicides deaths that occurred at work during the time period 2003 – 2014 is 237, for a total of 2,848. Since 2007, the numbers have been above the average.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries
The rise in suicide rates at work is even more significant given that overall homicides in the workplace have been steadily decreasing since the mid-’90s.
The obvious question is: Why is this startling rise in suicide rates at work occurring?
“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.”
Many suicide prevention experts linked the increase in one way or another to the Great Recession. I believe the recession played a major role because it put a triple whammy on people. Housing, which has traditionally been the major investment and retirement source for Americans, was in the toilet. Foreclosures were at an all-time high. Companies were laying off people, and job prospects were slim.
I believe that many working people experienced daily stress about employment. Every day, they might be laid off. Many were severely overworked because they needed to pick up the slack caused by reductions in workforces. They faced continuous fear of taking time off for vacations or illness and had few options to leave because jobs elsewhere were scarce.
Put all these issues in the pot together, and some people could not see their way out of their dilemma except through suicide.
Researchers in a study published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suspect that suicides occur at work because the perpetrators wanted to protect family and friends from discovering their bodies.
In the midst of the fear of terrorist attacks and active shooting incidents, organizations are significantly challenged in how to deal with the spectrum of violence they may face. However, it is critical that organizations not shy away from addressing these issues and muster the resources to engage their employees.
Managers need clear guidelines on healthy approaches to manage and prevent violence in the multiple forms it can take. Two industries that have taken the issue of suicides at work head-on are construction and law enforcement.
What can management do?
Stop thinking and acting like “it couldn’t happen at your company.” Provide regular communications through the channels that are most effective in your company regarding the potential warning signs that employees or others are at risk of acting in a violent manner. See a list of the classic early warning signs of workplace violence here. Many of the signs are also telltale signs symptoms of depression and suicidal behavior.
Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D., co-founder of Working Minds, a Colorado-based workplace-suicide-prevention organization, described a giveaway that’s more obvious than one might suspect: The employee will tell you.
When contemplating suicide, a person can be entirely consumed by the thought, she said. The problem may be coded in conversation—the individual may talk about death often, for instance.
As uncomfortable as it may seem, it’s important to bite the bullet and ask the awkward questions. “It is very hard to resist a human who is coming at you with compassion,” Spencer-Thomas observed. She suggests that HR professionals frame their questions in an understanding manner, giving the employee the opportunity to explain his or her condition. Statements such as, “I’ve noticed that …,” “It’s understandable given …,” and “I’m wondering if it’s true for you…” should be followed by a nonjudgmental statement.
Promote resources available to help employees
If your firm has an employee assistance program (EAP) or your healthcare provider offers counseling service, make sure that managers are trained about the program and skilled in how to make an effective employee referral. If your employee usage rates are below your industry average, you need to assess why and take action to increase usage. Talking to a professional counselor can make a big difference to a troubled employee.
If your firm does not offer an EAP, then identify community resources that can assist your employees and keep the list current.
HR should also have a strategy to deal with the devastating impact of a homicide or suicide at work.
I believe the time has come for executives to take a comprehensive approach to violence that occurs in the workplace and especially to bring mental health and suicide issues out of the closet into mainstream workplace conversations. We are past the point where organizations can think of suicide as a dirty little secret and hope it will go away. The time has come for meaningful action.
Don’t wait until something happens and people lose their lives. If you really mean that your employees are your most important asset, now is the time to step up.