Suicide in the workplace: how to help employees prevent and process it
The death by suicide of an employee can have a seismic effect on a workforce, and with more than 700,000 suicides a year1, it is an issue that organisations must consider as part of any wellbeing strategy.
Recognising the warning signs of mental ill-health and providing the appropriate support can help prevent employees from developing suicidal ideation.
Prevention is always better than cure, and all responsible organisations implement practices that promote good mental health for employees.
Yet even with the best possible safeguards and strategies in place, suicides in the workplace do occur.
When such tragedies happen, the distress can be worsened if organisations are ill-prepared.
Charlotte McIntosh, Director at WTW Health & Benefits, looks at measures companies can implement to help prevent employee suicide, as well as the role they need to take when death by suicide occurs.
Develop a policy
Companies can take a proactive approach by extending mental health and wellbeing policies to include a suicide prevention/response policy.
When developing such a policy, care should be taken to ensure it addresses those who are at risk of suicide, guidance for employees on how to help their colleagues and direct them to appropriate support, and protocols for how to respond to deaths by suicide.
The needs of employees who have survived a suicide attempt should receive equal attention. Returning to work can be an ordeal, and the employee concerned may fear judgement by colleagues, or being regarded as an object of pity.
To help prevent this, counselling and therapy should be offered before a return, and co-workers should be given advice on how best to support them.
An organisation’s Sickness and Absence Policy, and Return to Work policies, may also need to be adapted.
Focus on mental health
Along with personal issues, work-induced stress can be a cause of suicide. Bullying, discrimination, job insecurity, disciplinary hearings, changes and reorganisation can trigger suicidal impulses. Organisations should therefore ensure mental health and wellbeing policies are relevant, effective and evolve to meet needs.
Employees with pre-existing mental health conditions, and those who work from home, may be particularly susceptible to mental ill-health. However, all employees should be educated about the benefits, resources, tools, services, counselling, helplines and training available.
Employee Assistance Programmes, for example, can provide in-the-moment counselling or therapy services for employees who harbour suicidal thoughts.
Those who are experiencing suicidal ideation typically exhibit symptoms, which include verbal signs, behavioural signs and changes in mood.
Workplace Mental Health First Aiders, team leaders and managers could be appointed and trained to recognise these symptoms and provide appropriate support.
Postvention is the term used to refer to reactive support available to employees following a suicide. Effective planning can ensure appropriate care is given in both the short and long term.
Suicide can lead to intense emotions, ranging from sadness and despair, to anger, guilt or frustration.
Openness – and the promotion of healthy grieving – is key, and providing opportunities to talk about the incident can help employees process the tragedy, come to terms with the death and move forward.
To help prevent a suicide being regarded as a taboo subject, managers should not be afraid to lead by example and speak openly about their feelings.
Avoidance leads to stigmatisation. Furthermore, it can lead to affected employees feeling they should not share their emotions and vulnerabilities, and deter them from seeking support.
Evidence shows that those affected by suicide can be at an increased risk of suicidal ideation, which is why postvention is critical.
Leadership should be compassionate and understanding, allowing, for example, colleagues as well as company representatives to attend the funeral.
Where appropriate, management could organise a donation/collection, or arrange a company memorial service, or adopt a cause close to the deceased heart as the organisation’s chosen charity.
Establishing a postvention group made up of representatives from across an organisation could be considered. It should include HR directors, wellbeing leads, and those with relevant skills and experience. Members should receive training, and understand their duties, and the communication process should a suicide occur.
One of its roles should be to signpost benefits, helplines, counselling or bereavement services, which employees could contact should they feel the need.
It may take weeks or months for colleagues to come to terms with a death by suicide, or an inquest many months later may create a surge in troubling emotions. Organisations should therefore offer employees regular check ins or catch ups for as long as they find them necessary or helpful.
A postvention group could have responsibility for formulating a postvention plan. It should be acknowledged, however, that every suicide has a unique set of circumstances. And a ‘one size fits all’ approach would be inappropriate, insensitive and ineffective.
Manage the logistics
Although responding to and managing the emotional impact of a suicide is paramount, organisations should also consider how to mitigate any logistical or operational challenges.
A workplace suicide may require areas to be secured, and employees may need to be relocated elsewhere on the premises. Operations might need to be temporarily halted, and new working arrangements may have to be put in place.
Crisis management will involve designated personnel informing the emergency services and the deceased’s family, and recording and reporting procedures should be observed.
Swift communication is essential following a suicide in the workplace. To avoid misinformation, organisations should inform employees of the death, and highlight the support in place and how it can be accessed.
Details about the manner of suicide should not be given, and employees should be discouraged from sharing information until all the details are known.
Terms like “committed suicide” and “failed suicide attempt” are regarded as outdated and judgemental. Instead, “died by suicide” and “took their own life” should be used.
Such communications are also a way management can express their own appreciation of, and sympathy for the deceased, and convey empathy to the workforce.
It is advisable to create templated letters for employees – and the media, if necessary – in advance of any incidents. This allows for a calm and considered statement – not always possible if the communication needs to be written in the immediate aftermath of a death.
Support the supporters
Care should be taken to ensure the mental health of HR, line and team managers is not compromised when managing employee suicide.
They are at the forefront of communications with the family of the deceased, and measures should be in place to guarantee they can access the support available to other employees. Dealing with suicide can take a heavy emotional toll if welfare monitoring is not in place.
One of their key responsibilities is to ensure the wishes of the deceased’s family are respected. This could relate to such matters as how much information the family want released to employees.
Suicide is not generally an exclusion on employer funded group life insurance policies, and HR managers should be equipped with the knowledge to answer any associated concerns families may have. WTW provide full support to HR contacts through the life claims process, so that payments can be made to beneficiaries as soon as possible.
The majority of Group Life insurers include a bereavement, counselling & probate support service to families and, again, it is important that HR enlighten the deceased’s relatives of all the ways an organisation can support them.
Don’t go it alone
Suicide is a very serious and sensitive issue and companies may feel challenged by how best to address it.
Fortunately, there a many organisations and charities that offer support for suicide prevention and death by suicide in the workplace.
These include The Samaritans, MIND, National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK, National Suicide Prevention Alliance and Support After Suicide Partnership.
The Suicide Prevention Toolkit, produced by Public Health England and Business in Community, is a free and downloadable resource designed for HR and line managers.
The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s A Manager’s Guide to Suicide Postvention in the Workplace is another very useful resource.
We are family: How organisations can use family forming benefits effectively
Considering starting a family is a major life decision and one that has a multiplicity of impacts. Consequently, it is crucial that organisations wishing to recruit and retain top talent consider offering supportive family forming benefits and policies.
Extending beyond traditional maternity and paternity leave, modern day fit-for-purpose family forming workplace programmes should cater for wide-ranging family structures including single-parenting and same sex couples.
HR policies, benefits, and educational materials providing support in this area boosts employee wellbeing, engagement and productivity.
Christie Hedge who is a Diversity & Inclusion Specialist within WTW’s Health and Benefits Wellbeing Team, explores some of the different types of family forming support options that are currently available.
Provide pre-emptive and clear policies
Having HR policies to cover all family forming scenarios, including miscarriage or baby loss, is an essential reference point for employees and line managers and demonstrates that an organisation prioritises employee wellbeing.
It is not stipulated in law for all family forming scenarios that employers should allow time off for appointments, for example medical appointments for fertility and social worker appointments for adoption, for example. However, in the UK it is common practice for employers to formally or informally allow flexible working or time off.
Formally documenting leave allowances makes the treatment fair for all and non-discretionary. By having comprehensive policies in place detailing pay entitlements, leave or flexible working allowances, will ensure employees do not have to contend with unnecessary work-related anxieties during what can be a very stressful time.
In order to be truly inclusive, the rights afforded to employees should be equal, regardless of how their family is formed. For example, statutory adoption pay and statutory adoption leave should also afforded to those who have had children via surrogacy.
To ensure clarity on this, and all family forming-related benefits and procedures, company policies should be easily accessible and effectively communicated to staff.
Navigation support and funding
Employers can further support employees and their dependants by providing education and signposting services to help them navigate the complex healthcare and fertility support landscape. There are a number of specialised inclusive healthcare vendors in the UK and the wider global market who can provide virtual one-to-one consultations with experts. This can be an effective route for supporting staff during what can be a highly emotional journey.
Given the challenges we are seeing in the NHS, such as funding limitations, inequities in fertility treatment funding for same-sex partners or single people, and extended wait times, employers could also consider providing funding towards any private treatment or costs associated with the employees’ family forming journey. For example, funding towards infertility diagnostics, assisted fertility treatment, egg freezing, as well as support for employees planning adoption, surrogacy, and more. This funding can be provided through a private healthcare plan, or via one of the specialised inclusive healthcare vendors.
Consideration could also be given to signing up to the Family Workplace Pledge, which involves organisations establishing the role of a fertility ambassador who can be a source of information and who can engage employees to raise awareness and build a supportive climate.
Address the mental health pressures
Embarking on a family forming journey can present psychological as well as physical challenges, and such anxieties can increase the risk of infertility.
Mental health wellbeing benefits, such as mindfulness apps, tools and wearables can provide self-managed support. The range of physical health benefits, too, can be promoted, with educational classes and literature highlighting the positive effects of exercise on mental health.
Failure to cater for the numerous routes to family-forming that employees may wish to take in HR policies and benefit plans means organisations risk alienating employees and suffering both operationally and reputationally.
Few benefits can transform employees’ lives in such a fundamental way, or strengthen engagement and commitment to such a degree, as those which help to support employees on their family building journey.
WTW has expert advisers to ensure organisations’ family forming benefits are market-competitive and affordable based on the available budget.
Among the services they provide are reviews of existing policies and benefits and services, gap analyses to identify what can be improved and enhanced, and assistance in vendor selection or benefit design itself.
Employee Advice Guide: Menopause matters
No, you’re not going mad or losing the plot. You’re menopausal. And you’re not alone. And you don’t have to suffer in silence.
From insomnia and itchy breasts to mood swings and weight gain, we share the symptoms you may experience and explore ways to help manage your menopause mayhem through hormone replacement therapy (HRT), alternative treatments, and ways to self-help.
Employee Advice Guide: It’s time to be more open about gynaecological cancers
With 21 women dying every day in the UK from gynaecological cancers, isn’t it time to be bolder, shun the shame and talk more frankly about the cancers that start in the female reproductive system?
Here’s how to spot the signs, how to reduce gynae cancer risk and the support available.
Employee Advice Guide: Keeping positive
Positive thinking isn’t a magic wand that works overnight. It won’t make your problems miraculously disappear or heal your hurt or grief.
But it will make stress seem more manageable, big problems smaller and help you handle hardships with a more optimistic outlook.
Here are 10 tips to self-help your way back to positivity.
Employee Advice Guide: Discovering diabetes
Diabetes is becoming a public health emergency as cases are on the rise year-on-year in the UK. In fact, diagnoses have doubled in the last fifteen years, and it is expected that 1 in 10 of us will be diagnosed diabetic by 2030 if drastic prevention measures are not introduced.
Here, we explain what diabetes is, highlight the difference between type 1 and 2 and look at ways to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Employee Advice Guide: How to spot and combat imposter syndrome
Did you know 3 in 5 UK employees experience imposter syndrome?
With imposter syndrome, people can feel like a failure or a fraud despite what they achieve. They could be flying up the career ladder or winning awards but it never seems enough, and they can’t shake the feeling that they’re about to be found out.
Here’s 8 signs you may have the condition and how to self-combat it.
Employee Advice Guide: Being a parent isn’t always child’s play
Parenting is a dichotomous rollercoaster of excitement and exhaustion, amazement and anguish, fun and frustration. The highs can make you soar, but the lows can sink you to the depths of despair.
The everyday challenges of parenting can feel even more overwhelming with poor mental health. Here, we share our top 10 tips to help you manage your mental wellbeing and sources of additional support.
Seven ways HR can support the health and wellbeing of employees affected by world events
Be it military conflicts, tsunamis, famines or pandemics, international traumas can affect anyone’s mental wellbeing, whether they have a personal connection to the event or not.
Technology has “shrunk” the world to such an extent that events that would have once seemed far away now seem close to home.
During times of conflict or crisis, effective HR strategies become more important than ever to support employees that may be suffering heightened levels of stress and anxiety.
HR practitioners need to be extra perceptive, sensitive and empathetic, but at the same time take an unsentimental leadership position to provide wraparound support.
Easing anxieties with EAPs
EAPs are a benefit that could have been created specifically for times like these.
The counselling sessions, resources and referrals they offer can help tackle a variety of mental health issues that employees may be suffering.
Valuable but often overlooked, it is important to remind all employees how EAPs work and how to access them. To help dispel uncertainty or reluctance to use the service, any concerns about confidentiality should be addressed. It can be helpful to remind staff that employers will have no knowledge of who is using the service, or why.
Engagement with negative news can exacerbate anxiety, but there should be extra awareness of how certain members of staff could be particularly vulnerable.
For those who have personal experience of war zones or refugeeism, events could act as a trigger. Grief support should consequently be made available, or signposted, for those who have lost family or loved ones.
Understanding crisis fatigue
For employees still coming to terms with the physical and emotional fallout of the two-year pandemic, further unrest or political instability risks causing overload. Drained of resilience, they can be susceptible to burnout, a state of physical and mental exhaustion.
The term ‘crisis fatigue’ has been attributed to the burnout experienced in response to extremely challenging events. With traumatic world events occurring back-to-back, employers should be aware of the risks to – and potential vulnerabilities of – employees.
Training sessions to help managers identify the early symptoms workers may be exhibiting can be helpful. Such symptoms may include detachment, impaired concentration or attention, decreased output and performance.
Stress risk assessments, conducted either one-to-one or online, will also help highlight specific mental ill-health indicators and the underlying causes.
Mitigating the sense of helplessness
Thoughts that there is seemingly nothing they can do to help alleviate the suffering of others can lead to employees harbouring feelings of helplessness and frustration.
Implementing charitable initiatives, from sponsored fundraising events to designated volunteer days, offers a way of supporting employees by enabling them to directly engage, provide help and feel a sense of purpose.
Tackling financial fears
A less obvious cause of anxiety may result from the knock-on financial consequences of a crisis. Rising fuel, energy and grocery bills can cause employees to struggle monetarily.
Where applicable, financial wellbeing strategies should be supported by effective communication initiatives, highlighting any existing financial benefits, such as financial education workshops, and if necessary, explaining how these can best be used.
If privacy concerns are an issue, staff can be directed to the government’s Money and Pensions Service, which provides free, confidential and independent money and debt advice.
Prevention, however, is better than cure and it will always be more effective to provide advice and guidance from the outset, rather than employees being increasingly debilitated by mounting debts.
Caring by sharing
Supressing anxieties risks exacerbating them. HR should consequently facilitate opportunities for employees to share and discuss their concerns with others.
This could be via timetabled slots within the working day, or, for example, by making a dedicated room available for those who feel the need to ‘offload’ or vocalise and engage with others.
For those without families or dependants, or for those not in a relationship, the value of being able to talk with colleagues about a pressing concern unrelated to work should not be underestimated.
For those with families, it may well be that the workplace is a better location to articulate their fears. Domestically, they may be reluctant to fully express their concerns.
Having the opportunity at work to vent their apprehensions and concerns openly and honestly, without the fear of impacting others, can offer significant mental health benefits.
The elephant in the room
It should be remembered that concerns are not eradicated simply because they are not acknowledged. Management, departmental heads and team leaders should be encouraged to demonstrate to employees that they are aware external events may be causing anxiety.
This could be achieved by appropriately referencing them in meetings, newsletters, emails and other communications. Empathy can be a powerful resource and if leaders reveal they too have concerns about troubling world events, employees are more likely to feel they are better understood.
Be a flexible friend
Employees with family and friends abroad may be carrying an added emotional burden, calling for a greater level of understanding from management and HR teams.
In some cases, flexible working conditions – from adjustments to working hours to relaxing policies on mobile phone use – can support employees looking to maintain communication with loved ones overseas.
For those planning to look after relatives, host refugees, or balance other conflicting demands on their time, HR should be receptive to requests for extra holiday leave – either paid or unpaid – and additional time off.
An employer of choice
National and international crises are part of the world we live in today. When a solution to one anxiety-inducing crisis is found, inevitably, there will be more natural or man-made disasters to face.
In light of the suffering caused by many world events, it may at times seem trivial to consider the needs of employees, especially those who are not directly impacted. It may also be difficult to understand why their mental health could be affected by problems arising elsewhere on the planet.
That they are affected, however, is a consequence of compassion and shared humanity.
By treating them with sensitivity, kindness and understanding, you will be demonstrating the ‘human’ in HR.
HR calendar 2022
Tapping into health and wellbeing awareness days provides HRs a chance to encourage healthier living across their workforce. So, for the third year running, to save you time, we have collated some of the key dates to form a handy, downloadable calendar you can use over the next 12 months.