There can be few more distressing incidents at work than a co-worker taking their own life.
It is common for surviving colleagues to feel guilt that they didn’t know or didn’t do more to stop it, or even anger towards the victim – all of which can leave people in the workplace confused and bewildered in the aftermath of a suicide. People can report that even years after a suicide, they are left wondering if they could have made a difference.
Almost 5,000 deaths by suicide were registered in England in 2015 and around 75 per cent of these were by men,1 with the highest rates in the 45 to 59-year-old age group. Suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 20–34.1 This makes it likely that many workplaces each year are affected by suicide. Risk factors include psychiatric illness (such as depression), feelings of hopelessness, alcohol/drug use and previous suicidal behaviour or bereavement from suicide.1
Dealing with the aftermath of a suicide is a challenge for any workplace counsellor. ‘Postvention’ is the key aim in helping people cope and it is always wise to have a strategy in place before it happens; many organisations are thrown into panic by a traumatic event such as this and the chaos that can ensue makes it harder to regain control of what can quickly become a very turbulent situation. It is worth noting that anyone affected by suicide can become a risk themselves,1 so having a strategy in place is essential.
In the immediate aftermath of a suicide, the biggest issue to deal with is likely to be information flow. Rumour and gossip can follow a suicide as there are often details that, for understandable reasons, people don’t want to reveal: how it happened, why, drug or alcohol involvement, psychiatric illness etc. Managing this can be a big challenge but it is vital to respect the wishes of family members too.
According to the Business in the Community’s postvention toolkit for employers,1 corroboration of a suicide should only be provided to colleagues when this has been confirmed by the coroner and when the family are willing for this information to be released. At that point, it is important to focus on what support is now available and how colleagues can access it – and, of course, these plans should be in place in advance.
The biggest issue for any organisation following a death by suicide is contagion. This is when other vulnerable people who hear about the incident may engage in imitative behaviour. This can be because hearing that someone else has succeeded in taking their own life can encourage another person who has been contemplating it. This can lead to a so-called ‘suicide cluster’ and Public Health England publishes a very informative guide on managing this risk.2 It points out that ‘people who share similar characteristics or identify psychologically with individuals who have taken their lives may be vulnerable to the contagious effects of suicide, which may contribute to the development of clusters’.2 This can explain why people from the same workplace can be vulnerable to contagion and this is why postvention must include effective support.
Public Health England also offers useful advice about who may be most vulnerable following death by suicide of a work colleague, with its proximity model; geographic, psychological and social proximity are important factors to consider and Public Health England offers a checklist of support mechanisms at each of these levels.2
Clearly, putting strategies in place to reduce the risk of death by suicide is an essential part of both postvention and preventative action in workplaces, but this is something that in the harsh realities of a thrusting workplace environment, can be neglected. As Louise Aston, Wellbeing Director at Business in the Community, puts it, ‘the biggest mistake is that companies are reactive’,3 failing to have proper strategies in place and offering little training on spotting signs and symptoms of risk. Giving negative feedback, damning performance appraisals or other information to employees that can impact on their self-esteem, are often seen as part of the cut and thrust of work life, yet these can also contribute to a vulnerable person’s suicidal ideation.
Sadly, it often takes a tragedy for employers to take their responsibilities more seriously.
Dr Sandi Mann is Senior Psychology Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire.
1 https://wellbeing.bitc.org.uk/sites/default/files/ business_in_the_community_crisis_management_ in_the_event_of_a_suicide_toolkit.pdf (accessed 25 February 2019).
2 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/ government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_ data/file/769469/Identifying_and_responding_to_ suicide_clusters_and_contagion.pdf (accessed 25 February 2019).
3 https://www.ft.com/content/358985be-3fa7-11e782b6-896b95f30f58 (accessed 25 February 2019).