Approximately 300 workplace suicides occur each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the aftermath of a workplace suicide, company managers need guidance on how to best respond to the loss of an employee. In addition, company managers need to understand effective strategies that are designed to more fellow employees forward from a workplace suicide.
Understanding Postvention Following a Workplace Suicide
Postvention following a suicide in the workplace is psychological and emotional first aid, crisis intervention, and other types of support provided to individuals impacted by the death. The ultimate objective of postvention is if alleviate as much as possible the negative effects of a workplace suicide.
Postvention is necessary when an employee of a business takes his or her life in the workplace. Additionally, it postvention is vital when an employee kills his or her self at another location. It is also utilized in the event of a suicide of a vendor, client, customer, or family member of an employee.
A manager is called upon to play five critical roles when it comes to workplace suicide postvention.
First, a manager needs to approach a suicide and its aftermath with compassion for the bereaved. Private and public communications alike need to convey a respectful tone of support and empathy, with clear permission to employees and others to take care of themselves following a workplace suicide.
Second, a manager must listen carefully to ascertain the needs of individual employees. There needs to be an understanding that these needs will differ from one employee to the next. For example, some employees only distantly acquainted with the deceased may be able to return to a regular work routine quickly. Others who were close to the deceased may require additional time to adjust to the death and grieve. In addition to dealing with grief, an employee may also face other emotions like:
Because of the depth of emotions different employees may face, a manager might want to consider a structures group session to help with the bereavement process. Including trained, experienced professionals involved in this process can be advisable.
Third, a manager should take a leadership role in making sure that company policies designed to help surviving family members are implemented. This is necessary to prevent family members from enduring additional emotional trauma following the suicide of a loved one.
Fourth, a manager needs to recognize his or her unique role. For example, a manager is likely to be personally impacted by the suicide of an employee. He or she may be in need of support his or her self.
A manager is a key individual in assisting others, as has been delineated already in this guide. Moreover, a manager may become the target of blame and anger by other employees, whether justified or not.
Fifth, over the longer term, a manager should be sensitive to notable workplace events like holiday parties and the like. A manager should also strive to be sensitive to certain milestones, perhaps even including the anniversary of the employee’s death.
Three Phases and Ten Action Steps Following a Workplace Suicide
Experts in assisting with workplace suicide postvention identify three phases of recovery from this type of event:
- Short Term
- Longer Term
In addition, experts in workplace suicide postvention identify 10 action steps for managers following this type of self-inflicted death. These are:
- Coordinate: Contain the crisis.
- Notify: Protect and respect the privacy rights of the deceased employee and their loved ones during death notification.
- Communicate: Reduce the potential for contagion.
- Support: Offer practical assistance to family.
- Link: Identify and link impacted employees to additional support resources and refer those most affected to professional mental health services.
- Comfort: Support, comfort, and promote healthy grieving of the employees who have been impacted by the loss.
- Restore: Restore equilibrium and optimal functioning in the workplace.
- Lead: Build and sustain trust and confidence in organizational leadership.
- Honor: Prepare for anniversary reactions and other milestone dates.
- Sustain: Transition postvention to suicide prevention.
Immediate: Acute Phase
Coordinate: Contain the Crisis
A top priority for a manager when it comes to workplace suicide postvention and the associated response is to contain the crisis. A manger must bear will in mind that the initial response by management sets the tone for everything else that follows.
When a workplace suicide is discovered, law enforcement must be contacted immediately. Before law enforcement arrives at the scene, you must keep others away from the site of the death. Any unnatural death, including a workplace suicide, initially is treated and investigated as a crime. The coroner’s office will also be involved in the investigatory process at the scene.
You must not disturb the scene of the suicide in any way. You absolutely cannot disturb the scene in any way until it is released by law enforcement and the coroner.
Workplace suicide cleanup is also an element of coordinating and containing the crisis. Suicide cleanup cannot commence until the scene of the death has been released by law enforcement and the coroner.
Depending on the manner in which the death occurred, workplace suicide cleanup can be a complicated task. If the death occurred through an overdose of medication, and the body is promptly found, the cleanup following the end of the investigation and removal of the remains is minimal.
The same cannot be said if the means of suicide was a gun or knife. In addition, the cleanup process is more complicated if the body of the deceased is not promptly discovered.
Blood and other bodily fluids can contain hazardous pathogens. In addition, cleaning up after a suicide by violent means like a firearm or knife can prove to be highly traumatic. For these reasons, a company manager is advised to seek professional suicide cleanup assistance from a biohazard remediation specialist.
Notify: Maintain Privacy of Deceased Employee
An issue a manager may face is the family of the deceased employee requesting that the death not be disclosed as a suicide. A manager cannot ensure complete secrecy in this regard.
Workplaces are notorious for information spreading through informal channels. Thus, despite managements best efforts, word may get passed around employees that the deceased took his or her own life.
A manager can assure family members that all the best efforts will be taken to protect privacy, including the cause of death. An absolute promise cannot be made in that regard, however.
Communicate: Dispel Rumors and Contain Emotional Responses
A troubling reality is that there may be vulnerable individuals in a particular workplace. Such vulnerable employees may be at risk for responding to the suicide in a truly negative manner. For example, there are instances in which emotionally vulnerable workers responded to suicides of coworkers by taking their own lives. This technically is known as a contagion effect and is a real phenomenon. In other words, the death by suicide of a co-worker may trigger suicidal thoughts and feelings in some already vulnerable individuals and may increase their risk for copy-cat behavior.
In a larger company, there very well may be multiple employees entertaining suicidal thoughts at any given time. When one of these employees actually takes the step to commit suicide, another may follow suit. This is another example of the contagion effect.
Communication about the suicide of an employee needs to be as accurate as possible – again, respecting any privacy issues raised by family members. A concise statement about an employee’s suicide should be issued as soon as possible to the workforce. This tactic is the best step to take to protect against misinformation being circulated about the event.
Support: Offer Appropriate Assistance
In the immediate aftermath of a workplace suicide, those most directly impacted do not necessarily need counseling assistance at that moment. Rather, they are in need of more practical assistance. This practical assistance includes things like easy to serve meals and assistance in dealing with the deceased person’s personal belongings.
Other types of practical assistance for those most impacted by a workplace suicide, including the deceased’s family members, include:
- Maintain a list of phone calls, visitors, and people who bring food or gifts
- Organize a mail
- Offer to make notification calls and send emails
- Offer to run errands
Short Term: Recovery Phase
Link: Identify Impacted Employees and Refer to Suitable Resources
As part of the short-term recovery process, a manager must be aware of a cohort of people who are experiencing a more profound emotional response that can include traumatic grief and even suicidal ideation. A manager needs to aid in arranging for crisis counseling. In addition, a manager needs to help develop a culture that supports help-seeking and permits employees to disclose their needs and seek services confidentially.
In identifying impacted employees and aiding in the referral to suitable services and resources, some of the primary factors to be considered are:
- Circles of impact
- Nature of work
- Demographics of impacted employees
- Workplace schedules
- Productivity demands
- Proximity to incident
The overall response plan likely may need to include arranging for mental healthcare professionals to assist with employees for some time period. According to the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, these mental healthcare professionals may be recruited to:
- Consult with and support management in what is often a fluid/unfolding situation.
- Play a role in formal communication to the employees on issues such as the availability of support services, normalizing reactions, and psycho-education on self-care and recovery.
- Meet with affected employees individually and in small groups depending on the workplace situation and employee preferences, to help facilitate resiliency and recovery.
- Encourage those experiencing complicated grief or trauma reactions to follow through with additional support resources as available, especially the EAP and other professional community mental health resources.
Comfort: Promote Healthy Grieving
A manager is also in a unique position to aid in promoting healthy grieving following a workplace suicide. Oftentimes, a manager is uncertain about what to do in this regard and ends up either overreacting or under reacting following a workplace suicide.
Members of management do not need to be experts on grief. With that noted, a manager can provide invaluable assistance in promoting healthy grieving by keeping these key factors in mind:
- Awareness of the types of workplace productivity concessions that may be needed in the aftermath of a workplace suicide. These include time off, lightened duties, and leave for funeral attendance.
- Maintain visiblibility and checking in with employees.
- Help find the right balance between commemorating the deceased, but not memorializing the death in a dramatic manner.
- Serve as a role model for healthy grieving as well.
Restore: Return Equilibrium and Optimal Workplace Functionality
Stabilizing the workplace following an employee suicide is crucial. Things need to return to normal, even if that really is a new normal. A manager needs to balance his or her needs with the needs of other employees with the overarching necessity of restoring equilibrium and functionality in the workplace.
There certainly can and should be an appropriate mourning period. But, even when time is allocated for mourning and bereavement, part of the focus must also be on restoring workplace functionality.
Lead: Build and Sustain Trust in Workplace Leadership
Trust and confidence in management is a fundamental concern following a workplace suicide. This element of trust and confidence engenders workplace cohesiveness, a state that is vital when a workplace suicide occurs.
Not only does engendering trust and confidence in management aid in getting through the aftermath of a workplace suicide, it also is can contribute to the building of an ever stronger business enterprise going forward. The ACT Model is a structured process that aids in individual and organizational recovery following an event like a workplace suicide:
- Acknowledge the trauma, positioning leaders as also affected by the tragedy.
- Communicate compassion and competence.
- Transition workforce by setting an expectation of recovery and resiliency and helping workforce achieve “new normal” and prevention mindset.
Longer Term: Reconstruction Phase
Honor: Prepare for Anniversary of Death and Other Milestones
An element of the reconstruction phase is preparing appropriately for the anniversary of the employee’s death as well as other important milestones that might exist. This need not be some sort of broad public commemoration. Rather, the anniversary of the death can be appropriately memorialized in a simple, private matter.
Sustain: Transition from Suicide Postvention to Suicide Prevention
The final element of postvention is transition to suicide prevention. This process should include providing workers with practical, useful information about suicide prevention resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-8255.
There are also comprehensive resources for workplace suicide prevention available from Working Minds. Suicide prevention training is available through the Choosing and Implementing a Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Training Program.