Some workers are prone to killing themselves, or even colleagues, at the workplace, much like some violence and suicides occur at home.
Well, it’s happened again. I heard this sort of news on the radio in the last fortnight, and it brought back some workplace memories, writes David G Broadbent on TransformationalSafety.com.
In the USA some years back, a worker came back after a break and killed three colleagues, including his supervisor, with a firearm. The investigation identified that just prior to the killings the employee had been involved in a verbal altercation with the supervisor.
The subject of the altercation was specifically personal protective equipment (PPE) compliance. He had been noted to be random in his use of personal eye protection.
I once participated in an advanced training program on Traumatology (I now teach the stuff). The professor leading the program spoke for a week in an interesting and entirely integrated presentation, and never referred to a note.
The thing that has always kept that week in my memory was the time I spent chatting to another participant. Stan was a Salvation Army Officer. One of his responsibilities was as a Chaplain to the Newcastle Steelworks (NSW, Australia).
Downsizing and work load
Stan and I struck up a relationship during that week, as we had trodden the same dirt at the same time. I was an ex-Newcastle Steelworks employee. Metallurgy was my first job in a past life.
I left the Steelworks in 1983 during a major “downturn” in steel production. When I commenced work in March of 1981 there were almost 10 000 employees. When I left, exactly two years later, that number had reduced by more than half.
My departure was voluntary and I left to pursue the career path of Applied Psychology at Newcastle University. There were many who were not so fortunate. A significant number of long term employees were terminated from their employment.
Knock on the door
I told Stan how many employees had been killed at the steelworks in the short time that I had been there. Stan told me about the number of people’s homes he had visited in the same period. Stan was visiting to deal with the aftermath of suicides.
Sometimes, the body was still on the floor. These were the suicides of people who I may have come across during my own time at the Steelworks. The number of people who elected to take this course of action was terrifying.
Not that long ago a close friend in the UK told me about a large steel manufacturer almost halving their workforce in one day – a response to the Global Financial Crisis. I immediately began to think of the bodies on the floor, and I do not mean to be confrontational.
Downsizing is traumatic
Some workers resign because their work area had been ‘downsized’ and this results in a far greaterr workload. Some person, somewhere had concluded that it was quite OK to remove 40% of support staff, without visiting or discussing the “process” with the people “on the tools”.
This employee began to work a lot more hours, began to suffer from insomnia, gave up some of their hobbies to “get the work done” and eventually “burnt out”. What makes this all so sad is that this employee had over 25 years service.
What makes this all so “criminal” is that the Employer knew exactly what was happening. The employee had put their hand up and acknowledged they were struggling. Only to hear “platitudes” of “It’ be all right, just hang in there a bit longer – we’ll get it sorted”.
This story is unfortunately all too common, in every industry. The above example happened in New Zealand. In other cultures, with a higher propensity toward external violence, there could well have been bodies on the floor. We should be very concerned about individual propensity toward internalising emotion.
Suicide is a special form of violence that regularly destroys large numbers of people and families, for all sorts of apparent reasons.
Is it a SHEQ problem? Of course it is. Many of us see this situation at work and remain silent. We might whisper in the lunch room, but do we speak up? If we do not, we must carry some of the burden.
As a supervisor, how many of us enable this outcome by continuing to “load up” a direct report, even when we can see they are struggling. After all, we also have to “do more with less”. If we do, then we must carry some of the burden.
As a senior manager, how many of us are involved in decisions that remove resources within the workplace that results in employees being placed at risk of work overload? If we do, then we must carry our share of the burden.
As one of the key decision makers in the business, how many of us turn a “blind-eye” to robust information that an employee is truly struggling (being seen in tears, no longer eating in the lunch room, experiencing weight change, becoming sullen and withdrawn etc).
If we do, we should be in jail, and in some jurisdictions we would be, if it could be shown that our actions /inactions significantly contributed to a fatal outcome.
• If you want an e-copy of ‘Managing Traumatic Events in the Workplace’, published by TransformationalSafety.Com just send me a note and I shall forward a link which shall enable the download.
• David G Broadbent is the founder of TransformationalSafety.Com