Workplace Suicide Prevention: A Plan for Employers

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call/text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

Every day in the U.S. 130 people die by suicide, the majority of whom are of working age. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health of adult Americans has declined sharply. The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reports that 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. now report symptoms of anxiety and depression, up from 1 in 10 adults in the first half of 2019.

Americans spend a significant amount of time at work and with their co-workers; even people who work remotely spend ample time with co-workers on video calls. This means employees are in a unique position to recognize risk factors and red flags that may indicate someone is struggling with thoughts of suicide. Though the pandemic has raised awareness about addressing mental health and suicide in the workplace, employees might feel unprepared to address such a serious topic. They may also think they it’s a private matter they shouldn’t get involved with. By creating a workplace suicide prevention plan, employers can help destigmatize employee mental health and better support their employees.

Creating a Workplace Suicide Prevention Plan

Generally speaking, employers can create policies and procedures to educate their staff on mental health and suicide prevention in the workplace. Employers can help destigmatize talking about mental health at work by making resources easily available and having open, honest discussions. Get buy-in from the top levels of your organization to make mental health a priority and address any known weaknesses in your corporate culture that negatively impact workplace mental health.

Train managers and co-workers to identify red flags that someone may be considering suicide and how to approach someone confidentially. If a co-worker isn’t comfortable approaching another employee about their mental health or suicidal thoughts, ensure there is a company representative they can report their concerns to and that that person will act appropriately and swiftly.

Review state laws governing when/what you can ask an employee about their mental health and privacy laws concerning their medical condition.

Provide programs and resources to support employees, including EAPs with counseling for mental and physical health, substance abuse, grief, and relationships.

Fighting Stigma and Myths about Suicide

Addressing the stigma around mental health and myths about suicide are key to educating employees about suicide prevention in the workplace. Stigma – perceived or real – around mental health makes it more difficult for people to seek support from or provide support to their fellow co-workers. Employees may fear being seen as weak or not “normal” if they suffer stress, burnout, depression, or similar issues – especially if they think they’re the only ones that feel this way. They may feel that they’re expected to manage their mental health on their own time and not let it affect their work. They may think that only serious mental illnesses need therapy or treatment and that they can “fix” themselves on their own.

Myths about suicide are also dangerous and prevent proper support. It is a myth that talking about suicide will give someone the idea to take their own life or make them more likely to follow through with plans they’ve made for suicide. Studies show asking someone if they’re considering suicide and talking through those thoughts may help them process their feelings and reduce their stress and anxiety.

It is also a myth that people who say they’re considering suicide are only doing it for attention. Simply put, any threat or attempt at suicide must be taken seriously. Any attention they get may save their lives.

(Read more on myths about suicide and specifically myths about youth suicide.)

Stigma and myths around mental health and suicide prevent people from getting the help they need. It worsens their already stressed mental health and impacts their performance at work. By openly addressing stigma and myths, employers can better support employee mental health.

Risk Factors and Red Flags

Risk factors are situations that make someone more likely to have thoughts of suicide. Be aware that in the workplace, you may not always be aware of some risk factors because they can be intensely personal. Risk factors include:

  • Experiencing depression or bipolar disorder
  • History of trauma
  • Does not identify as heterosexual or cisgender
  • Limited social support
  • Family or personal history of suicide
  • Being male, over 45, American Indian, Alaskan Native, or a veteran

Red flags are behaviors that indicate someone may be at risk for suicide and include:

  • Saying they have thoughts of suicide
  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Dramatic mood changes
  • Uncontrolled anger or aggression
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, and activities

What to Do in an Emergency

If you are thinking about hurting yourself or attempting suicide, tell someone who can help immediately or call/text 988.

If a co-worker is in crisis:

  • Take them seriously if they say they are in crisis. Listen openly without judgement.
  • If you are unable to follow through with support, escalate the issue discretely to a trusted person in the office who will take immediate action.
  • Do not leave them alone. If you have to leave them, they should be in a secure space with another safe person they trust.
  • Remove any items that they may use to harm themselves.
  • Take them to an emergency room or dial 911.

What to Do if it’s Not an Emergency

If your co-worker is not in immediate danger:

  • Ask them if they are struggling with thoughts of suicide. Directly ask them, “Are you thinking about suicide?”
  • Listen to them honestly and without judgement.
  • Do not promise not to tell other people, but also do not gossip about it. Tell an appropriate person: someone in HR, a manager, someone who will act appropriately and provide support.
  • Encourage them to get support, either through programs at work, counseling, or calling/texting the 988 Crisis Line.
  • Check in with them to see how they are doing.

For additional information, please check out our Suicide Prevention Resources page.