Coping with the suicide of an employee

Suicide can have a ripple effect. How can an organization deal with the crisis and support employees who grieve the loss of their colleague?

With the rising amount of stress we face in our daily lives, the workplace has become a crucial space for suicide prevention. In this article, the last in this series of four on preventing suicide at the workplace, Sriranjitha Jeurkar explore how organizations can prevent suicide and offer support to employees who may be vulnerable. 

Ajay, 35, had been employed with a large software firm for five years. He was known to be a hard worker, and was very popular among his peers. When Ajay didn’t turn up to work for a week, his colleagues assumed that he must have been ill. They were unable to imagine any other reason that would keep Ajay from work for an extended period of time. Ajay’s organization tried getting in touch with him to find out the reason for his unscheduled absence. They found out from Ajay’s family that he had ended his life.

Preventing suicide at the workplace

 

Gradually, Ajay’s colleagues began to find out about Ajay’s death. His closest friends in the workplace were shaken when they discovered it, and found it hard to focus on work. Rumors began to circulate about why Ajay took his life; some said it was because of work stress, while some others said it was a relationship issue. The management was not sure how to handle this before the situation got out of hand.

(This fictional case study has been constructed with the help of experts, to aid understanding of the issue by placing it in a real-life situation.)

The suicide of an employee is bound to send ripple effects through the organization. The death affects the person’s coworkers, managers, the Human Resources (HR) department and the management of the organization. Employees and management have to deal with the grief of losing someone they worked closely with, or may experience feelings of guilt (“I could have helped…” or “If only”), sadness (at losing a friend) and anger (at the circumstances that drove the person to end their life).

When the person is said to have taken their life due to work reasons, the effect may well be magnified. Colleagues and team members could experience difficult emotions and this may have a negative impact on their performance. Most of the time, an unnatural death leads to the spread of several rumors and speculation about why it took place. All of these could affect the employee morale and the image of the company.

What is suicide postvention?

postvention is the emotional support that is offered to someone who has been bereaved by suicide. Most suicide postvention programs focus on the family or friends of the deceased. A suicide can have a huge impact on the person’s coworkers too, irrespective of the reasons that led to the person’s suicide.

By offering a postvention program to its employees, the management is likely to support the bereaved employees and prevent other suicides from occurring; those who are bereaved by suicide are at higher risk of attempting suicide themselves. The goals of postvention are:

  1. Provide accurate information about the death of an employee, and avoid the possibility of misinformation or rumors going out of control.
  2. Provide support to employees who are bereaved by suicide, and help them deal with their trauma. This helps the organization prevent further suicides.
  3. Address the stigma that is associated with suicide.
  4. Support employees to return to a state of normalcy, enabling them to be more healthy and able to get back to their responsibilities.

With these goals, postvention can become an important part of the organization’s suicide prevention program as it prevents further suicides from occurring.

Postvention plans should ideally be put in place by the organization before a suicide occurs. The management and HR of the organization can work with a team of mental health professionals to assemble a framework that guides them on what to do in the case of a suicide (or attempted suicide) by any of its employees. The organization may have little or no need to use this framework; however, it is still essential to put it in place, as it guides the management and employees in how to respond to a suicide, and help its employees deal with the trauma.

Responding to the crisis

As part of the postvention plan, the organization has a quick response team that takes charge in time of a crisis. The members of this team (who could belong to the HR, management or other departments) have clearly-defined roles and responsibilities that enable them to get into action soon after receiving the news of a suicide. They have a set of clearly-documented guidelines to follow in times of crisis. The postvention plan includes pointers for:

  • Identifying a person who will communicate with the family of the deceased
  • Identifying a person who will communicate the information to employees, particularly the close friends or team members of the deceased
  • Identifying a person who will communicate with the media, with policies on what information needs to be shared
  • A plan to offer information on the support that is available to other members of the organization (an in-house counselor, or access to another mental health professional).

The organization can share the news about the employee’s death after a consultation with the family. Very often, due to societal stigma, families prefer not to reveal the cause of death. If that is the case, the organization could comply with the family’s wishes. The decision of how much information to share is to be taken after considering the family’s preference.

Experts suggest that while sharing information about a suicide, the organization follows the WHO’s guidelines for reporting on suicide:

  • Avoid language that sensationalizes suicide or indicates that it could be a solution to problems
  • Avoid describing how a suicide was attempted or completed
  • Avoid using photographs or video footage
  • Show due consideration for the people who are bereaved by the suicide
  • Take the opportunity for sensitization about suicide
  • Provide information about where employees can seek help

Experts recommend that the details of the death are not to be shared with anyone but close family, unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Withholding sensitive information helps protect the family’s privacy and also ensures the safety of other individuals who may be impacted by their colleague’s death. It is also important that the communication avoid singling out any reason or indirect blame for someone who may be seen as responsible for driving the person to end their life.

In the communication with employees, it is important for the organization to emphasize that suicide is almost never caused by a single factor. It is a tragic and complex event brought about by a combination of causes.

Any communication which shares the tragic news may also include information on support available to those who were close to the deceased, and may be distressed by the death. The organization can also address rumors indirectly by emphasizing the family’s needs for privacy, and reminding employees about what information is best omitted in internal or external communication, as well as do’s and don’ts for social media sharing.

Mourning the loss

Once the information has been shared with the person’s coworkers and manager, the organization could offer their employees time to attend any funeral or memorial services. This gives the other employees an opportunity to express their grief, and deal with their emotional distress. Sufficient care should be taken to ensure that the official communication about the employee’s death does not vilify the person for taking their life, or sensationalize the fact that it was a suicide. There should also be a conscious separation of the positives of the person’s life, and the way in which their life ended. The organization can speak to others about the tragedy of a life cut short, while taking care not to judge the deceased for taking their own life.

When the organization has a sensitive approach, the employees are able to deal with their distress more easily. During this stage, the organization can also identify co-workers who may need counseling, and ensure that they feel safe about reaching out by assuring them of confidentiality and full support.

Offering support

The response team can help the colleagues and friends of the deceased by offering support. By addressing vulnerable employees (or those impacted by the loss of their colleague) in small groups, acknowledging their loss, and informing them of what support is available to them, the organization sends out a clear message that it is concerned about the welfare of the employees, and negates the stigma around suicide.

Employees may be able to cope better with their loss if they are given time off to attend the funeral or memorial service. The response team may also identify employees who need additional support, and check in with them to make sure they are not in significant distress.

Ensuring wellbeing

Sustaining the suicide postvention plans after the crisis has passed can help the organization return to its regular routine. All of us have different ways of grieving; some people may take weeks, while others may take months. During this period, the postvention team can follow-up with employees to check if they need additional support to cope with the loss.

For more information on addressing postvention issues in your organization, you could contact your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) provider. The NIMHANS Centre for Wellbeing and the Department of Clinical Psychology, NIMHANS conduct workshops for corporates on mental health, suicide prevention and postvention issues. They can be contacted atworkshops.nimhans@gmail.com.

This series has been curated by White Swan Foundation with inputs fromDr Gururaj Gopalakrishna, head of the department (epidemiology), NIMHANS; Dr Prabha Chandra, professor of psychiatry, NIMHANS; Dr Seema Mehrotra, additional professor of clinical psychology, NIMHANS; Dr Poornima Bhola, associate professor, department of clinical psychology, NIMHANS; and Dr Senthil Kumar Reddi, associate professor of psychiatry, NIMHANS.

 

 

 

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