September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day, and while it’s not often talked about – especially at work – suicide affects hundreds of Canadians daily. An average of 275 people attempt suicide every day in Canada and an average of 11 people die from it.
We cannot ignore the association between work and suicide. We know that every 1% increase in unemployment
can result in a 1% increase in Canada’s suicide rate, and that 70% of all suicide deaths in Canada are among
working-aged adults between the ages of 30 and 64. Moreover, a June 2020 study revealed that unemployment
as a result of COVID-19 could lead to more than 2,000 suicide deaths on top of our nation’s annual rate of about 4,000.
We Canadians spend upwards of 60% of our waking hours at work, so our experiences there can deeply impact our lives. If a co-worker or a co-worker’s loved one dies from suicide, their team members and the entire organization often struggle with the loss.
Many Canadians were already facing significant mental health challenges and unfortunately, the pandemic has made all of us more vulnerable to mental illness. We asked psychotherapist and Medisys supported by TELUS Health physician Dr. Kathee Andrews for advice on workplace suicide prevention in our pandemic world:
1. What should employers do now to help prevent suicide within their workforces?
The first step in providing mental health support is acknowledging and understanding that mental health is a serious medical concern and creating a stigma-free environment for employees. Organizations should have formal mental health programs in place for employees to access when needed for stress management, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and marital or other family stress.
It is equally important for employers to encourage and facilitate social connections (especially for teams who are new to working from home) and to create an open, welcoming environment where employees feel safe to discuss work related stress with their colleagues.
Even though it’s a difficult subject, Suicide Prevention Day should be a topic of open discussion in the workplace. Promoting the day company wide opens the door for communication around awareness of risk factors, prevention measures and support services available.
2. What suicide warning signs should Canadians look for among their employees, peers and families?
It’s important to distinguish between risk factors for suicide and warning signs. Risk factors include an existing mental illness (E.g. depression or severe anxiety), a history of previous suicide attempts, substance abuse (including alcohol and cannabis), social isolation, living with a chronic disease or disability and being an Indigenous person or member of the LGBTQ community.
Warning signs, on the other hand, include a decline in work performance that is out of character (E.g. late or failing to attend meetings, failure to complete tasks, reduced self-care), becoming increasingly withdrawn at work or at home, a marked change in mood, complaints of high anxiety, expressing a feeling of hopelessness or worthlessness, as well as “taking stock” or giving away personal items for no clear reason. Sometimes, the warning signs are not obvious or there are no signs at all.
3. What should we do if we suspect someone is at risk?
The most valuable thing you can do is to gently reach out. You can always express concern and ask them how they are doing to open the conversation. If you are concerned about suicide, it’s ok to ask if they have suicidal thoughts or to ask, “Are you feeling that you might hurt yourself?”
Contrary to common belief, asking someone if they are having thoughts of suicide will not make them suicidal. Rather, asking directly about thoughts of suicide signals that you care, that you realize they may be considering suicide and that you are ready to talk with them about it. This can be an uncomfortable question to ask but the opportunity to discuss the feelings and emotions surrounding suicide is often a great relief to people. Be ready to listen. Come prepared with information and resources and stay with them until you can direct them to a professional or a family member who can support them. Importantly, know your limits.
If you are not trained to manage these situations and they are uncomfortable for you, it’s important to acknowledge that and let them know you’ll help to get them the professional support they need.
Give your employees access to 24/7, on-demand mental health support with Akira by TELUS Health.
4. How should an organization handle a suicide within their workforce?
If there is a death by suicide within a workplace, it is important to allow employees to process the event in their own way and in their own time. A suicide may impact the psychological health of team members on many levels. The organization should share as much information as is provided by the family and allow employees time to attend any memorial services, where appropriate.
If an employee assistance program (EAP) program is not already available, employers should make grief counsellors available for anyone who feels they would benefit from counselling. Some employees may express anger and project blame on the workplace or the company. While that might be an expression of grief, employers should carefully consider whether there are workplace issues that might have contributed to the employee’s distress and consider making any changes to address those issues.
If you or a loved one is having suicidal thoughts, contact the Canadian Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645 between 4:00 pm and midnight EST.
Medisys is here to support you and your co-workers with free mental health resources.