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Suicide Awareness in the Workplace

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Every suicide is a tragedy, a preventable loss. Recent, high-profile deaths by suicide are sending shock waves across the nation. But local families, communities, and workplaces all suffer when a life is lost to suicide.

Alarmingly, suicide rates in Hawaii have increased by 18 percent in Hawaii over nearly two decades, according to new research from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of those who died by suicide had not been diagnosed with a mental health condition, CNN reported.

Hawaii employers can take and should take proactive steps to promote suicide prevention and awareness.

This article covers:

Suicide prevention in the workplace

There are several steps that can be taken to address talk of suicide in the workplace and promote a culture of awareness and prevention.

Know the warning signs

One of the biggest warning signs of suicide, is talk of suicide. This includes statements of hopelessness, or not being around, or plans to self-harm.

Other behavioral signs include mood swings, sadness, and hopelessness.  A huge secondary risk factor is possession of lethal weapons or powerful drugs.  Learn more at WebMD: Recognizing Suicidal Behavior.

Take every indication seriously

For practical purposes, there is no such thing as a joke about suicide. Your reaction can make the difference between life and death.

Just because a person isn’t asking for help, does not mean they don’t want it. Bringing it up is often a cry for help.

Be sensitive but direct

If suicide comes up, it must be addressed sensitively and directly.  However, the conversation should revolve around support and resources available to the employee versus questions about an actual or perceived medical condition, which can expose you to liability.

As best as possible, focus on performance and observations in the workplace. Have you noticed issues with their performance that weren’t there before? Are there any personal issues that may be affecting their ability to focus at work?

Offer reasonable accommodation

If your employee has reasonable requests for accommodation related to a disability, it is recommended that you work closely with the employee to either grant those requests or offer other alternative options.

Each situation is different, but accommodations may include having their workstation relocated, adjustments to their work responsibilities, or time off for counseling and treatment by their medical provider.

It is important to note that employees do not need to specify the need for an accommodation in order to trigger an employer’s obligations to engage in the process.

Maintain confidentiality

As with all personnel matters, and particularly employee health issues, it is imperative that you and your human resources staff maintain confidentiality to the fullest extent possible.

Although employees may inquire about a co-worker’s well-being or notice changes such as a leave of absence, managers should be trained on how to respond and employees reminded of the company’s stance on confidentiality.

Document everything

Each time you communicate with your employee, take detailed notes about the interactions: the initial dialogue, accommodations offered and/or requested, and any follow up conversations or actions.

Extend outside help

If your company has one, an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) is an excellent way to offer immediate and confidential support to the employee.

Many EAPs offer complimentary initial consultations and beyond that, services may be covered in whole or part by employee healthcare plans.

Promote awareness

Educating employees about the warning signs of suicide and mental illness increases the chance that employees who see something concerning, will say something. It may also help lessen stigmas related to mental illness, allowing employees to confide in and support each other.

Ultimately, this type of sensitivity will help promote a safe and comfortable workplace for everyone.

The link between suicide and mental illness

Suicidal thoughts may arise for a number of reasons including grief, despair, low self-esteem, and frequently, mental illness.

Consider these sobering statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Health:

  • 90% of people who die by suicide have an underlying mental health issue
  • One in five Americans experiences a mental illness over their lifetime
  • Anxiety disorders, major depression, bipolar disease and schizophrenia are the most prevalent, diagnosed mental illnesses
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States

The stigma surrounding mental illness is one of the things that makes it difficult to acknowledge and treat.

In Hawaii, some cultural attitudes towards mental illness make the stigma even worse. Mental illness is frequently seen as a family shame or embarrassment, the result of a personality weakness or character flaw (Hawaii Department of Health report PDF).

This is despite the fact that mental illness is treatable and many people are able to make a full recovery.

Legal considerations with employees suffering mental illness

Employers need to keep in mind that the underlying condition that causes suicidal thoughts may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA).

The amendment, which tends to be interpreted broadly, expands the definition of disability to include mental illness. It also covers employees who have a record (or past history) of a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

If you are investigating a suicide-related situation, and there is an underlying mental health condition involved, the employee may be entitled to reasonable accommodations in the workplace and protected against adverse employment actions related to their disability.

Also note that discrimination suits based on mental health conditions are on the rise, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In fiscal year 2016, the EEOC resolved almost 5,000 charges of discrimination based on mental health conditions, at a cost of $20 million for employers.

Call 9-1-1 if you or someone you know is thinking about suicide

To talk with someone, call:

  • Crisis Line Hawai’i
    • Oahu: 832-3100
    • Neighbor Islands: 1-800-753-6879
    • Crisis TEXT Line: 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline1-800-273-TALK (8255) Military Press 1

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Readers should first consult their attorney, accountant or adviser before acting upon any information in this article.

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