Updated: Mar 1, 2020
By: Logan Cohen, Professional Therapist & Online Life Coach
I have been in the field of Counseling Psychology since my first introduction to the adult workforce. Over my years in practice, I went from starting out in ACUTE and INTENSIVE psychiatric settings to starting New Leaf Counseling Group - a private group counseling practice in Charlotte, North Carolina. The current physical setting for clinical work at New Leaf is a bit less intensive regarding acute psychiatric crises, given that many of my clients are higher functioning professionals in the Charlotte area.
This probably does not surprise you given the Outpatient setting, but what surprised me, is the frequency at which suicide seems to be an experience in the modern professional workforce. People often assume that working professionals are free from the grips of mental health issues and this assumption is many times incorrect. Working professionals can struggle with mental health issues too…
At least once a month, a client informs me that one of their colleagues at work has recently been discovered deceased after taking their own Life. It seemed from the stories I was hearing that most of these individuals who completed suicide were male coworkers - then I stopped to consider this observation. Since 4 out of 5 victims of suicide in the United States are in fact Male, and that us Men have been socialized to be primary financial providers for our households, it is not much of a surprise that Males aged 45-54 are at highest risk for being victims of suicide in the workplace.
As Men who provide financially for our households, we tend to work anywhere from 40-60 hours per week in the United States, with a lot of more current research showing that the modern American Professional has worse “Work-Life Balance” than we ever have. We don’t have time to go into more detail right now about that American work-life balance issue, we can go ahead and assume that the modern professional Man will spend more time at work than almost any other place in their adult life. Given this, let’s talk about suicide in the workplace and how to respond as a fellow Human Being to suicide in the workplace.
It can be incredibly difficult to figure out whether a person will in fact follow through with killing themselves and there are no hard and fast rules for figuring this out for anybody - a Manager included. Given this, be reasonable with yourself of what to look out with suicide in the workplace and employees. At the same time, there are warning signs that can be assessed and we will review those here. Even though we can't predict exactly what People will do, People who do complete suicide will often display a collection of these warning signs to friends, family, and even acquaintances.
These are NOT examples of “attention seeking behavior”, but are instead cries for help - even if the employee in question does not know what they need. While the behavior DOES serve to draw in your attention, this is because this Person is considering killing themselves and still have a bit of hope left, so are letting you know. Will you be a part of the solution? Or will you reinforce the inherent shame of their thoughts so that they have yet another excuse to drift off into hopelessness?
If you see the following caution signs, these are reason for concern and ongoing tracking of presentation and job performance.
It will be important to continue assessing the potential risk of suicide in the workplace:
Suicide in the Workplace - Caution Signs:
#1 Caution Sign for Suicide in the Workplace
A reluctance to engage with other co-workers in the workplace
In almost 80% of cases completed suicide, there was Depression that was inadequately treated. A symptom of Depression is no longer seeking engagement in basic life experiences that previously brought enjoyment. Spending time socially is one of these for ALL People - no matter how introverted. And if a previously socially engaged employee is now isolating, this could be reason to check in.
#2 Caution Sign for Suicide in the Workplace
Open disclosure of feeling left out or socially isolated
Another common symptom of Depression is inappropriate or out of proportion experience of personal guilt. Since social needs are so important for Human Beings, a common “cognitive thinking error” of someone struggling with Depression is, “I am not good enough for anybody to want to be socially connected with because [insert reasons that is not good enough here as truth about personal identity].
#3 Caution Sign for Suicide in the Workplace
Disclosing feelings of failure, hopelessness, or loss of self esteem
For someone stuck in the throes of Depression, a loss of hope will take place if there is not adequate treatment. The individual will literally perceive themselves as helpless in their own Lives and you can oftentimes hear them speaking about their self esteem more definitely in this way - saying things like, “Well I tried while I could…”, or even “Well that was a run, eh? Hopefully the next person will actually figure it out....” If it sounds like they have stopped thinking about the future past a definite point, this is reason for concern about suicide in the workplace.
#4 Caution Sign for Suicide in the Workplace
Expressing irritability or even anger
Since Men are not socialized to be comfortable showing vulnerable emotion, we tend to present very differently from what many People are taught to look for insofar as Depression. We are taught that people with Depression are always sad, mope around, and sag their shoulders down as they walk like Igor from “Winnie the Pooh”. I have actually found in my years as a Professional Therapist and Online Life Coach that Men with Depression most often do not present how we have been trained to recognize Depression. Men who struggle withe Depression - especially if it has been for a long time often look and/or sound ANGRY, rather than "sad" or "mopey".
#5 Caution Sign for Suicide in the Workplace
Talking about Closure for Life Plans or Professional Lives
When People are planning to kill themselves, there is nothing to plan for after the completed suicide. Given this, People who are considering suicide in the workplace will oftentimes make specific mention of creating closure for processes that don’t seem to have any practical need to end. “Hey Bob, I want you to know that if anything happens to me, then my dog “Fido” is all yours Man. I know how much y’all enjoyed hanging out during that poker night, so it would only be right.”
When and if you see any of the above caution sign for suicide in the workplace, it is time to "listen to your gut". Make sure you continue tracking how they interact with you, as well as peers, subordinates, and supervisors, as well as any noticeable changes to overall professional performance. If these caution signs worsen and/or you see any of the warning signs described below for suicide in the workplace, it is time to go ahead and read this blog article about how to respond to workplace in the suicide appropriately.
Immediate Warning Signs for Suicide in the Workplace
#1 Warning Sign for Suicide in the Workplace
A Recent Loss of Personal Relationship
Again, Human Beings are such social creatures that loss is hard for all of us. With this being said, someone who is already struggling with Depression likely feels isolated from most spaces geared towards meeting Love and Belonging Needs. If someone struggling with Depression loses a close personal connection that they believe is the only relationship separating them from isolation - they often panic. This can be a possible warning sign of suicide for someone who is already lonely.
#2 Warning Sign for Suicide in the Workplace
An adjustment in workplace position (even if planned)
We spoke earlier about how us Men are socialized to be so invested in our professional lives and careers as the primary financial provider for our family. It is even common place for us Men to over-identify with our role(s) in the professional workplace to the degree that an adjustment to these professional roles might even spell a warning sign for suicide in the workplace. If an employee’s emotional health is already not the most stable or consistent, then be wary of how an adjustment to the workplace might impact them.
#3 Warning Sign for Suicide in the Workplace
An Embarrassing Experience in the Workplace
As stated with the last “red flag”, it is common for Men to invest so heavily in their professional Lives relative to other areas of our Life that before we know it - we have over-invested. If something embarrassing occurs in our workplace such as getting reprimanded, disciplinary action, or even being discovered misappropriating funds - this can spell out an enormous blow to self identity and can spell trouble for potential suicide in the workplace.
#4 Warning Sign for Suicide in the Workplace
Escalated Abuse of Alcohol or Drugs
This one is especially problematic because it is inherently two-fold. First, elevated substance use is a symptom that someone is trying to medicate deteriorating mental health conditions on their own. Secondly, elevated substance use is also associated with loss of inhibition and increase in high risk behavior, that only compounds issues if someone is already struggling with pre-existing mental health issues.
#5 Warning Sign for Suicide in the Workplace
Unexplained fatigue - even burn out
It cannot be overstated how much of a bind us Men place ourselves in when we over-identify with our professional lives. Given this, if your Male employee who used to be engaged seems to have difficulty concentrating or tracking tasks that they were able to complete adequately before, then it’s time to check in and make sure you are doing your part to prevent suicide in the workplace. “Bob” has always lived for work and now he hardly seems engaged at all. “Bob” might not be OK.
These varying degrees of warning signs regarding suicide in the workplace are an important element of intervention. If we do not know what we are looking at, then it doesn’t matter how well researched the interventions are - OR how effective a Manager might be. When it comes to an appropriate response to suicide in the workplace, you have to know what you are looking for and then, what to do.