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Grappling With The Rise Of Work-Related Suicide During The Pandemic: How To Support Yourself And Fellow Coworkers

Grappling With The Rise Of Work-Related Suicide During The Pandemic: How To Support Yourself And Fellow Coworkers

by Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

September is National Suicide Prevention month. The pandemic has led to an increase in suicide nationwide. Employers can play a critical role in preventing suicide in the workforce and protecting employees from stress, disengagement and burnout. Every 40 seconds, someone dies from suicide. According statistics, work stress such as long hours and job strain is a leading cause of suicide among Americans. Suicide has become a global health crisis and the 10th leading cause of death in the United States–a rate that has risen 30% since 1999.

Overall Rates On The Rise

Nationally, suicide is at a 50-year high, a major mental health crisis with 44,000 Americans dying by suicide every year. Nine police officers in the New York City Police Department committed suicide this year alone. Rates are highest among working adults between 45 and 64. According to an alarming recent report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. suicide rates are the highest since World War II. The new report said the rate was 33% higher in 2017 than in 1999 in both men and women and among all races and ethnicities. The high rates of stress, the opioid epidemic and widespread social media—where bullying and discussions of suicide are prevalent among youth—are believed to be contributing factors. Men and women with substance abuse disorders are six times more likely to complete suicide than those who don’t use.

Climbing Incidences In The Workplace

Suicides related to workplace issues are also rising. In 2013—the most recent available statistics—270 U.S. employees completed suicide at work—a 12% increase over 2012. Workplace stress is believed to be the leading factor in suicides when employees have little or no control over high job demands. According to a StressPulse survey, excessive workload (46%) and interpersonal issues (28%) are the leading sources of workplace stress. Most employees who attempt or die by suicide have mental health or psychological disorders that haven’t been addressed. When a disgruntled employee loses a promotion or gets fired, it can become a final straw on top of pre-existing stressors and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or drug use. Male employees are 15 times more likely than females to commit suicide because of workplace issues. One study by the Institute of Health examined the chronic impact of work on suicide. It found that a sample of 63 employees who completed suicide had depression and anxiety, excessive debt, higher impulsivity and poorer social support, compared to a control group of 112 non-suicidal employees.

Mission Roll Call

September 11th is also Patriot Day. A national veterans group is launching a campaign to advocate for mental health needs and awareness, sharing stories of the mental hardships faced by the military. Mission Roll Call is launching their mental health advocacy campaign, “From My Frontline to Yours” to share the lessons military veterans have learned from the challenges related to their service. This movement will provide veterans with a powerful, unified voice that is heard by our nation’s leaders and communities and aims to bring national attention to the mental health needs of veterans, front line healthcare workers and others who have experienced trauma and loss. Key focus points of From My Frontline to Yours include:


  1. Check on your family and friends and ask about their mental health.
  2. Find someone serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic and make sure they know about post-traumatic growth, which focuses on ways to heal after trauma.


Prevention And Coping

It is estimated that eight out of 10 people who consider suicide show signs of their intentions to harm themselves. If you or someone you know are considering suicide, it’s important to know what to look for and what to do.

1. Know the signs. Some of the signs of suicide ideation are isolation at work, poor job performance, sudden change in an employee’s personality, previous suicide attempts or threats such as, “This job would be better without me in it” or “I might not be around to put my name in the hat for that promotion.” Expressions of hopelessness, depression, burnout, chronic absenteeism and lack of interest in the job are also symptoms. Inappropriate behavior in the workplace (arguments with colleagues, customer complaints, unusual behavioral patterns (absenteeism, mistakes, lack of productivity, unusual network activity), illegal behavior (bullying, harassment, low level crimes outside of work), financial stress (sudden adverse changes in their financial condition) or potentially public social media posts.

2. Provide training. If you’re an employer, make sure HR personnel are well educated about suicide and suicidal ideation. If you are an employee in an organization where suicide hasn’t been acknowledged or discussed, speak to someone in authority who can take steps to provide training for all employees. With appropriate training, you know how to identify and intervene to make sure a vulnerable employee gets professional help before becoming suicidal. Otherwise, social isolation can cut suicidal employees off from help when they most need it. Training teaches you that any form of stigma—judgment, name-calling or shame—must be avoided at all costs. Otherwise, it could push a suicidal employee over the edge.

3. Take threats or attempts seriously. No suicide threat or attempt should be dismissed or taken lightly. Statistics show that employees who talk about or threaten suicide or call crisis centers are 30 times more likely than average to kill themselves. And 40% of people who complete suicide had made a previous attempt. Threats or attempts are cries for help that something is gravely wrong in an employee’s life, and you should take them seriously and deal with them immediately. It’s important to be supportive, compassionate and understanding in cases where a coworker is suicidal. If you’re concerned that a coworker is suicidal, trust your instincts. Reach out to the person, share your concerns and be willing to listen. Find out if the person has a concrete plan to harm. If so, don’t leave the person alone or keep it a secret. Never attempt to counsel a suicidal person unless you’re trained. Inform someone in authority immediately and insist the employee get professional help even if he or she resists.

4. Arrange help for coworkers. When an employee completes suicide, it affects everyone in that person’s life: family, friends and coworkers. The managers in Lora’s firm brought in professional mental health providers to help workers cope with the shock and loss. It’s incumbent on management to provide employees an opportunity to process the trauma together as a group, ask questions and receive coping tips on how to emotionally self-care during this disturbing time.

5. Reach out for support. If you or someone you know might be contemplating suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 800-273-8255. You can also text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis text live. In an emergency, you can always call 911 or contact a local hospital or mental health facility. For other mental health issues, contact Mental Health America to find resources closest to you or call 1-800-273-8255, a 24 hour crisis center. You can also call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746 at the SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline. Trained crisis workers will listen to you and direct you to the resources you need.


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