In 2010, 38,364 Americans committed suicide, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This sobering statistic is a reminder of a public health issue that inevitably makes its way into the workplace. What can employers do and what might they need to consider when an employee makes comments indicating he or she may be contemplating suicide?
First, take seriously any employee statements that contain specific, general, or veiled threats to harm themselves or others and investigate the matter immediately. Show support and concern for the employee’s well-being, but be careful not to discuss personal matters or offer personal advice. Be direct in asking, “You have made this statement, can you tell me what is going on? Are you serious about this threat?”
You will need to assess the employee’s response to determine the validity and the immediacy of their suicidal statement(s). MSEC HR consultants and attorneys are available to assist you in this assessment and in the identification of possible responses. Ultimately, how you proceed will depend on the specifics of the situation. Here are some general considerations:
You can urge the employee to seek immediate assistance from support resources such as your Employee Assistance Program, if you offer one, and/or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) and http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/, where trained crisis counselors are available 24/7.
Depending on factors such as the nature of the employee’s behavior and statement(s), the nature of the employee’s job, and after consulting with an MSEC attorney, a psychological fitness-for-duty test may be appropriate. Coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and/or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may trigger a duty to provide time off or engage in the interactive process to explore possible accommodations (see FYI: FMLA Overview and FYI: ADA Overview). Caution – do not regard an employee as disabled or assume disability in the absence of a medical opinion or an accommodation request. Also, be careful to safeguard the privacy of the employee by only discussing the situation with those that have a legitimate need to know.
Acts of violence are often preceded by a threat of violence, so take suicide threats seriously. In some instances, suicidal employees have harmed co-workers prior to harming themselves. Depending on the nature and immediacy of the employee’s threat to harm themselves or others, you may need to call 911 to involve local law enforcement and/or emergency response personnel. Given the uncertainty and unknowns of such situations, preventative action through professional resources is advisable.
In terms of prevention, it is important to monitor environmental factors such as workplace stress, workloads, and morale; employee complaints, grievances, and frustrations; and erratic or uncharacteristic changes in employee appearance, behavior, or performance. Seek to promote a supportive, constructive, and positive workplace environment through good leadership and supervision, a healthy culture, and open channels of communication. Consider providing employees with support resources such as wellness and employee assistance programs, training, coaching, and avenues for problem-solving in a safe environment. Various online resources are also available to employers regarding suicide prevention in the workplace.
Should you encounter a situation indicating a threat of possible suicide in the workplace, you can contact MSEC for assistance with assessing the human resources and legal issues attendant to the situation.