For many years, workplaces believed that employees were dispensable. As a result, they didn’t see a need to invest in the well-being of workers.
The influence of the workplace on suicide has yet to be widely researched, but organisations can play a significant role in supporting their employees’ mental health.
However, many organisations avoid talking about suicide due to concerns that include, but are not limited to, the following: “If we extend accommodation to one employee, we’ll have to offer the same perks to everyone else.”; “Employees in crisis often need extended leaves of absence, resulting in burdensome work disruption”; “Senior leadership doesn’t find it relevant to the company’s bottom line”; “Our HR team and managers have not been adequately trained to handle this issue”; “We are not sure how to start the conversation about suicide prevention”; “It is too intensive for workplaces to take on. This is not our job”; “We may say the wrong thing and make matters worse.”
Let’s look at some of the signs of suicidal ideation in the workforce. Employees who grapple with suicidal ideations could make direct statements about ending their life; make indirect comments like “What’s the point of living?,” “Life is meaningless” and “No one would miss me if I were gone”. They also talk or write about death or dying, including in social media posts; give away their possessions; ask about life insurance policy details, particularly related to cause of death; show interest in end-of-life affairs, such as making a will or discussing funeral preferences; exhibit noticeable changes in behaviour or mood, such as appearing uncharacteristically sad, quiet or withdrawn; neglect work, appearance or hygiene.
Just like all managers, for HR professionals to notice signs of depression among employees, they need to be actively listening to the employees when they mention being overworked, unfulfilled, stressed or dealing with challenges in their personal lives. This starts with empathy and awareness.
Managers must be trained in recognising distress and in compassionately reaching out when it’s appropriate. Most importantly, engaging a knowledgeable professional or organisation to help build a programme that makes sense for the specific workplace, rather than having a generic approach. The provision of piecemeal mental health/meditation apps or classes would be highly commendable.
There are some nine practices to help organisations develop comprehensive and sustained strategies for mental health promotion and suicide prevention, which include but are not limited to: Cultivate a caring culture focused on community well-being; create a healthy and caring community, and foster genuine community support and a sense of belonging; address job strain and toxic workplace contributors; reduce certain environmental aspects of job strain, stress, trauma and life disruption that negatively impact employee vibrancy; plan for self-screening and crisis prevention.
Teach employees to plan for crisis to know how to handle such situations; build a suicide prevention response programme. Offer a tiered approach to training that builds skills and confidence at different levels of intensity; serve as peer-support ambassadors. Ask peers and ambassadors to do their part in increasing mental health awareness and suicide prevention; provide trustworthy mental health options. These resources should be well-versed in suicide risk assessment, management and support while also offering treatment options.
Suicide prevention is not only the right thing to do but also impacts an employer’s bottom line. As managers take steps to make the workplace a more supportive environment, they will find that employees enjoy working for them more— they engage, they produce, they stay with their companies, and they live. Kudos to Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi for launching a Mental Wellness Policy on November 21 2022. We can all borrow a leaf from such strides – but, most importantly, management commitment to the operationalisation of such policies is a story for another day.