This blog addresses mental illnesses in the workplace, including suicide. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 for free, confidential support.
In 2017, an email from a software company CEO named Ben Congleton went viral. It started when a web developer at the company emailed her team the following:
“I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.”
Congleton’s response was shared by the employee on Twitter. One year, 15K retweets and 44K likes later, this message echoes a growing desire for open conversations about mental illness in the workplace:
“I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
The Stigma of Mental Illness in the Workplace
Stigma: it’s a word commonly used to describe mental illness. And all too often, its mere existence is a person’s deciding factor between seeking professional help or struggling in solitude. According to a Kaiser Permanente study, eight out of 10 workers with a mental health condition say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment.
Stigma can cause those affected by a mental illness in the workplace to suppress their feelings in fear that their employer or coworkers won’t see them as productive, strong and reliable members of the team. In fact, surveys show that it is a leading factor in the rise of death by suicide amongst the medical profession. New research shows “one doctor commits suicide in the United States every day – the highest suicide rate of any profession. And the number of doctor suicides – 28 to 40 per 100,000 – is more than twice that of the general population.”
While rates of depression and other mental illnesses in doctors are similar to the general population, members of this profession are less likely to seek help and thus are going untreated or undertreated.
Suicidality in the Workplace
Doctors aren’t the only people in a profession with alarmingly high rates of death by suicide. Several organizations have hypothesized about industries or occupations with a higher than normal risk, with “normal” being the U.S. national average. Although trends vary by sex, location, time period analyzed and a variety of other factors, occupations that are classified by the National Center for Biotechnology Information as having access to lethal means of suicide – including firearms, drugs and poisons – typically are “high risk” occupations. This includes:
- Fire & Emergency Workers, who, in 2017, died by suicide more than all other line-of-duty fatalities combined.
- Prison Officers, whose suicide rate in the state of California peaked at more than four times the rate of the state’s general population.
- Veterinarians, whose rate of suicide is more than twice that of doctors.
In 2016, the CDC released an occupational suicide list that identified occupations with high numbers of suicides in one year. The list included construction and extraction; management; production; installation, maintenance, and repair; and sales.
Attending to the Mental Health of Employees
Neglecting to make mental health a priority in the workplace causes employees to take multiple unplanned mental health days each month. When you add up the intangibles of multiple, unplanned days off – from the impact of absenteeism on company morale, to lower productivity and reduced profits – the organizational cost becomes significant.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are one way corporations have historically helped employees resolve personal problems, including mental health issues. These programs typically provide services such as short-term counseling, confidential assessments and referrals, but often go unused. A national benchmarking study of EAPs showed a median use of 4.5 of 100 covered employees used outside services offered through their employer.
When it comes to attending to the mental health of employees, the following are a few ways companies of all sizes are making strides to help:
- Encouraging key players to open up a dialog about the importance of mental health.
- Offering courses or group coaching to discuss everything from sharing personal experiences, to de-stressing, to helping a coworker with a mental illness, to debunking misconceptions.
- Scheduling a few minutes each day for employees to practice mindfulness, yoga and/or meditation.
- Providing quality health insurance coverage that covers mental health specialists.
- Consistently evaluating Human Resources (H.R.) practices to ensure their effectiveness.
Because mental illness can be present in any workplace, employers may choose to adopt a trauma-informed approach to their H.R. practices to create a culture that is capable of responding to adversity. According to the Missouri Department of Mental Health, an organization could begin to embrace trauma-informed practices by assuming that every employee wants to be a high performer, but will likely have their own unique barriers to overcome in order to get there. The next step would be to design H.R. policies and procedures throughout the stages of employment that help employees feel safe, valued and empowered to reach their fullest potential.
What You Can Do to Help a Coworker with Suicidality
For both employees who are struggling to maintain their career while battling a mental illness, and employers who are tasked with fostering a supportive work environment, it is encouraging to see more companies, like Congleton’s, taking action to end the stigma of mental illness in the workplace and promoting wellness. However, the silent threat of suicide is still prevalent in the working world.
It is important to be vigilant for the warning signs of suicide as well as the risk factors, because not everyone who is contemplating suicide will have recognizable warning signs. The verbal and nonverbal behaviors that may indicate suicidal ideation range from social withdrawal and extreme mood swings, to talking about being a burden to others and increasing use of alcohol or drugs. Sometimes these behaviors may also be connected to a recent change, loss or other painful life event.
If you suspect that a colleague is contemplating suicide, don’t be hesitant to address the concerns because of awkwardness or uncertainty. Getting this person help is more important than your relationship with them – and as their mental health changes and improves over time, so, too, may your relationship.
To start the conversation with a coworker you are concerned about:
- Ask the person directly if he or she is thinking about killing themselves.
- Eliminate all distractions so that your coworker knows they have your full attention while you converse.
- Listen with compassion and empathy, and without judgment.
- Follow up with your coworker regularly.
- Offer to accompany your coworker to Human Resources or counseling, and provide him or her with the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1 (800) 273-8255.
Seeking a Third Party to Help with Mental Illness in the Workplace
At St. Louis Center for Family Development, we offer services for companies seeking to make a shift in paradigm. Our training programs help to recognize the impact of trauma, as well as intentionally create policies, programs and services through a trauma-informed lens. Our therapists and mental health professionals are also trained in a range of treatments for individuals, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), that have been proven to help people struggling with suicidality, intense emotions, anxiety and depression. Contact our office today to learn how we can help your company or organization.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Suicidal thoughts and ideation can be overcome. Please note that this website is not an emergency hotline. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.