Suicide rates around the world are similar, and work stress is implicated in a gradual rise in the suicide rate in recent decades. Supervisors and sheq practitioners can play major roles in identifying and managing stress factors and stress responses, thus saving emotional injury and saving lives.
Clinical psychologist and sheq culture consultant David Broadbent, who is one of the specialist bloggers on SHEQafrica.com, has written a book, titled ’When trauma strikes; an operational handbook’, and is presenting workshops on stress, suicide prevention, and trauma recovery around the world.
His organisational recovery workshops are offered to employers on Transformationalsafety.com. Below follows an extract from the book by David Broadbent.
How to identify suicidal stress
In the last couple of weeks I have heard a number of news stories concerning suicide, some of which occurred at work, or were ascribed to workplace stressors.
In my clinical practice I am working with a 33 year old male ambulance (EMT) officer. I often think that these guys must see, in their daily work, visions that exceed our worst nightmares. In the last five years he has lost half a dozen colleagues to suicide.
His question to me was’ “I am a professional health worker, I should have seen it coming?” Feelings of responsibility, guilt, and plain uncertainty are common following awareness of a suicide.
Suicides disguised as ‘accidents’
Suicide is a significant cause of death. It is far larger than the official figures indicate. Sometimes families will go to great lengths to try and disguise a suicide. Many single vehicle car accidents are thought to be ‘suicide by tree’.
There are differences in suicide rates based on such factors as age, gender, and ethnicity, but some people from all backgrounds commit suicide, or go through a period of seriously contemplating it. Even the person who appears to be highly functional, in control, and successful can commit suicide. Nobody is immune.
People considering suicide often have been “worn down” by many stressors and problems. Actual or expected loss, especially a love relationship, is often a contributing factor. The suicidal person is frequently lonely and without a solid support system.
Sometimes this is a long term characteristic of the person; in other cases a geographic move, death, or a divorce may deprive an individual of personal ties that were formerly supportive.
Listen carefully to what your employees say. People thinking about suicide often, though not always, give hints about their intentions. Talking about not being present in the future, giving away prized possessions, and making funeral plans are examples of possible hints of suicidal intent.
If you hear such talk, question it, kindly but firmly. Express your genuine concern for the person; you won’t make the situation worse by clarifying it, and an open conversation with you may be the person’s first step toward getting well.
Be alert to changes in behaviour. Deterioration in job performance, personal appearance, punctuality, or other habits can be a sign of many problems, including suicidal concerns.
How to respond to suicidal colleagues
If an employee admits thinking about suicide, arrange professional help for your employee, and the way you do this is can impact on employee willingness to receive professional help. Your genuine respect and concern for the employee can contribute to the healing process.
First offer your personal concern and support. Let the person know you care. Employees are each unique human beings and valued members of your team.
Show understanding of the employee’s pain and despair, but offer hope that, with appropriate help, solutions can be found for problems that make people feel desperate. Keep away from “I know just how you feel” statements. Whether you have been in that “same place” or not, does not matter. As far as your employee is concerned you do not!
Ask whether any of the employee’s problems are work related, and, if so, take initiative in solving those problems. For example, the employee may feel improperly trained for key responsibilities, or may be having difficulties with leave or some similar issue without having made you aware of it.
If you can act as an advocate in remedying some of these problems, you will help in three ways: removing one source of pain, showing concretely that someone cares, and offering hope that other problems can also be solved.
Do not question the employee about personal problems, but listen with empathy if the employee chooses to share them. Do not offer advice, but acknowledge that stress problems are real and painful.
Protect the employee’s privacy with regard to other employees. When dealing with management, you need to think clearly about what they need to know, like, is the employee temporarily working a reduced schedule on medical advice. They do not need to know intimate personal information that the employee may have confided in you as supervisor.
Without hovering over the employee, show your continued support and interest. Make it clear that the individual is an important part of the team, and plays a key role in the ongoing life of the workplace.
How to get help for suicidal stress
As a general rule, anyone feeling enough pain to be considering suicide should be referred to a mental health professional, at least for evaluation. Make it clear that you want the employee to get the best possible help, and that some types of assistance are outside your own area of competence.
Usually, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is the referral source for mental health assistance; if your organisation has one. If not, use the employee’s general practitioner. If the employee consents, call the GP yourself, emphasising that the situation is serious and needs timely attention. Arrange an appointment and firmly offer to drive the employee to the appointment.
If for some reason the EAP or GP is not immediately available, turn to your community’s Crisis Intervention or Suicide Prevention resource. These are normally listed with other emergency numbers in the telephone book, and available on a 24 hour basis. Offer to sit with the employee, whilst they make the call.
How to follow up
Once your stressed colleague is involved in a treatment program, try to stay in touch with the program. This does not mean that you should involve yourself with specific personal problems that the employee is discussing with a therapist.
What you do need to know is how you can work with the treatment program and not at cross-purposes to it. Does the employee need to adjust work hours to participate? Has the employee been prescribed medications whose side effects could affect job performance? Should you challenge the employee as you normally do, or temporarily reassign the person to less demanding duties?
This kind of communication will occur only if the employee permits it, since mental health professionals will not, for ethical reasons, release information without the employee’s consent. If you make it clear to the employee and treatment team what your goals are to support them, and not to delve into the employee’s private concerns, you will probably have no difficulty getting co-operation.
A meeting involving you, the employee, and the counsellor can be particularly helpful in clarifying relevant issues and ensuring that your supervisory approach is consistent with the employee’s treatment. You only want to focus on how you can assist with the resolution of relevant workplace factors.
How to prevent stress from assisting suicidal colleagues
Working with a suicidal person is highly stressful, and you should take positive steps to preserve your own mental health while you help your employee. You should not hesitate to get support for yourself, either from your own supervisor or from a professional counsellor.
• David G Broadbent is a clinical psychologist and sheq corporate culture consultant based in Australia. He serves a number of corporate clients in Africa. Read some of his blogs on SHEQafrica.com or visit Transformationalsafety.com.