CONTENT WARNING: This article includes descriptions of suicide that may disturb some readers
Workplace suicide is defined as suicide in or outside the workplace, which may involve an employee, supplier, a significant customer, a family member, a close friend of any of the above. When it occurs, it has a devastating impact on the emotional well-being of both the victim and his/her co-workers.
According to the National Center of Mental Health, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic rise in mental health problems which may trigger or aggravate suicidal thoughts. This is because the virus outbreak has brought forth a slew of stressors that millions of people are experiencing for the first time in their lives: widespread job loss, deaths of loved ones that they are unable to properly mourn, and the heightened fear of contracting the disease, among others.
To make matters worse, social distancing policies crafted by health authorities to reduce the risk of infection have resulted in the removal of many of the resources people have traditionally used to cope with stress: Routines are disrupted; face-to-face contacts with family, friends, and mental health professionals are no longer allowed; exercise and other forms of outdoor physical activities have been curtailed; and even relaxing at home is now harder to achieve since the entire household is cooped up together.
Because people spend a large portion of their day at the workplace, it is highly likely that there will be those who are struggling with the stresses while doing work and hiding it. Employers and co-workers therefore have a crucial role to play in suicide prevention because they are in a position to spot the signs of being mentally unwell, as well as provide distressed individuals with an important social and emotional network.
Key elements of an effective workplace suicide prevention program might include:
1. Creating a workplace culture that promotes good mental health
Encourage staff to create Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) whose members can serve as mental health champions as well as offer peer support when needed. In addition, managers can advocate or promote pro-mental health work benefits such as paid mental health days, sufficient vacation time, and other policies that acknowledge the importance of both physical and mental health.
2. Knowing and understanding your employees.
Regularly hold team-building events so that co-workers get to know each other on a more personal level. This will make it easier for them to identify colleagues who are exhibiting stress or drastic changes in mood or behavior.
3. Fostering a workplace culture where it is all right to seek help.
Employees should feel comfortable in approaching their superiors if they are feeling emotionally unwell. In turn, managers should have the confidence to be able to respond appropriately when an employee needs support.
4. Encouraging self-care and healthy living.
Regularly promote the importance of maintaining a balanced diet and getting enough exercise, as well as the risks of smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. In addition, make sure that the on-site workplace environment itself follows safety protocols — air quality, lighting, temperature, noise levels, and physical distancing measures must meet minimum health standards to reduce the stress of employees.
5. Promoting a safe and positive work environment.
Bullying and harassment at work increase stress and the risk of suicide, so they should never be tolerated. Employers must act swiftly and decisively when allegations are made.
6. Educating and training managers and other key staff about suicide prevention awareness.
The suicide or attempted suicide of an employee — even if it does not occur on the job –can have a profound emotional effect on others in the workplace. Evidence has shown that when businesses take concrete measures to support staff health and well-being, these will translate to improved staff engagement and better productivity, leading to financial gain for all.
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