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Suicide at Work: A Reality Check for HR

Suicide is not hashtagable.  

Or a buzzword.  Or a trends post.  Or a hot new technology.  Or a “best of expert list blog post.”   Or an SEO play.

It is uncomfortable.  It is real.  It is the 10th leading cause of death in the US.

There are nearly 40,000 suicides a year in the US.  And that number is growing.

It is also something we don’t like to talk about in our “real” lives, let alone at work – but with suicide rates surging to a 30 year high in the US it is a conversation that needs to be had.   I grew up with a broken family due to my step-fathers suicide.   I have watched people I love kill themselves slowing with addiction.  I have seen the grief even years later of a family who lost a child to it.

It isn’t something that simply happens to other people. 

Suicide doesn’t simply effect those closest to the person, it effects their colleagues and the workplace as well.   But when suicide happens at work, the impact and after effects can have an unimaginable, and often unmanaged, impact on coworkers and an organization.

Suicide in the Workplace

While suicide rates overall are peaking, there is a disturbing trend for people committing suicide in the workplace.  More than 1,700 people in the US killed themselves at work between 2003-2010 and globally the number is thought to be more than 10,000 since 2007 according to a recent Atlantic article on the topic.

In 2000, a HP employee opened a hatch on an employee commuter plane and jumped out in front of horrified co-workers that tried to save her.

In 2013, 270 people in the US committed suicide at work – a 13% increase over the prior year, according the The Atlantic Article.

In 2014, 10 workers at French Telecom Orange committed suicide in the first three months of the year. It was the second round of mass suicides at the company.

In 2015, a German pilot committed suicide and killed a plane full of people with him – while actively in therapy for suicidal tendencies.

Just yesterday, we learned about the suicide of an Apple employee in their conference room.

The annual cost of workforce related suicide is nearly $13,000,000,000. (13 Billion) in 2005.   Statistically, a company with 100,000 employees will have the loss of an employee or their immediate family member every seven days. In addition, 25 more will be seen and treated for an attempt – with an impact on health insurance (especially for self-insured), stress levels and productivity according to the QPR Institute.

How to Handle Depression and Grieving at Work

I am not a psychologist, or an expert at this by any stretch.  But I have had to grieve a major loss while working and found it nearly impossible to actually focus.  Beyond that, colleagues didn’t know how to handle it or what to say so they say nothing.

It is often very hard for employees of the co-worker that committed suicide to move forward – feelings of blame, guilt, anger, sadness can overwhelm the staff.  The WSJ has a great article talking about the impact much later on the co-workers of the HP suicide. 

At a minimum, as employers we should offer solid EAP programs for our worker and their families.  And not something that is mentioned at orientation, rather something that is openly discussed, promoted and not stigmatized.  Encourage people using it.  From overstressed at work to medical issues to death of family members to pending divorce at home, work suffers when the rest of life isn’t aligned properly.  It is an investment worth making.  For every death by suicide there are 25 others that attempt it.

As much as we hope we wouldn’t ever use it, every CHRO, VP of HR and HR Leader should have in place an Emergency Guideline in the event a co-worker commits suicide or is killed.  It is something that you will need to be able to move on quickly – and at the time is not when you will want to be figuring out resources and procedure.   If you work in a close office, have something similar in place for if an immediate family member of an employee dies. I have seen first hand the positive impact these types of programs can have on the morale and closure for a team.

Using Big Data & HR Technology for Good

We have data in our HCM solutions now for stuff most HR Pro’s don’t even understand.  Funny enough, the vendors often don’t understand the value to all of it either, but since it is available, they share it.    But what if we were able to use some of this immense amount of data to really impact our employees?  Selfishly for leaders, happy employees are good for profits and morale, but on a human level – don’t we owe it to our employees to make sure we aren’t literally working them to death or ignoring risks that would be easy to spot?

The truth is, a lot of people hide their depression or addictions well. 

But prevention programs work, the US Airforce reduced suicides by one-third, simply by trying to identify early warning signs, talking more about mental health and training their leaders to be more proactive in concerns.

In any size company and with (almost) any system – you can do some hacks to how it is “supposed” to be used to help you flag and identify some risk at your organization or at least make sure everyone is educated as much as possible on mental health, support options and early identification.

  1. Onboarding Software- Talk about your EAP.  Talk about stress management.  Talk about programs you have in place to alert someone if you are concerned about someone else.   As a hack, I have seen these also used as offboarding or lifeboarding programs – as employees need to take time off work for medical or other reasons – to get them re acclimated and socially looped in while they are off work.
  2. Time & attendance program – look at time off.  There is often a correlation between time off and depression.  There is also an interest to look at people who never take time off.
  3. Performance Management or Goal Setting Software (TMS Suite) – Is there a downward trend for an employee or something doesn’t seem right?  Its really easy to see with this.  If you are a company that still only does annual performance reviews, this won’t help you much – but if you are having regular, active, recorded check ins between managers and employees – you might find something in a trend blip.
  4. LMS – Learning Software  – Make sure you have education for managers specifically around mental illness, depression and spotting signs in employees.  70% of managers do not think “stress” or “depression” should warrant time off work.
  5. Pulse Survey or Employee Engagement – I know it seems simple, but sometimes its just a matter of asking.  Almost a third of people that commit suicide disclose to someone the intent to take their lives.  Maybe it really can be as simple as asking a question. 

Healthcare industry is starting to test big data and predictive modeling to identify veterans who may be at an increased suicide risk, yet not flagged by a clinician for one reason or the other. While it is not perfect, the future of this type of a product may be available in a more corporate setting in the coming years.   Likely it will be a startup vs the governments approach, but I still see it coming.

My Challenge for Our Industry:  If we can develop predictive technologies that look at online social behaviors to determine someones flight risk or openness to a new job, how can we not use the same type of technology to identify if someone is at risk for taking their own lives.   That is a board of advisors I would sit on proudly. -Sarah Brennan

So please, as you sit and listen to experts pontificate on future trends and better ways to attract candidates – make sure your employee engagement and management programs are set up to support, protect and keep safe the ones you already have. 


Resources for HR Leaders (and people) on Suicide

American Society for Suicide Prevention.  Overall, great organization.

The Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention has put together one of the most comprehensive guides for after a suicide I found.  Their website is also full of content and ideas.

The website Support after Suicide offers advice for people as well that is helpful and personal in its approach.

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers a support line as well as a chat and ways to encourage reporting via social and other channels.


Sarah Brennan

Sarah Brennan is a recognized HCM industry analyst and advisor focused on improving the impact of technology on people, business and the future of work.  Sarah Brennan has been named a top global influencer in HR Technology by more than 50 publications and shared her insights at speaking engagements around the world. As Chief Advisor at Accelir, she partners with HR Technology vendors and investors as an advisor, interim CxO role and on engagements focused on growth strategies, product roadmap & market education/evangelism. She also works with corporate teams enhancing talent strategies.

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