HR Tip of the Week: Do’s and Don’ts When an Employee is at Risk of Self Harm
Contrary to common belief, people at risk of suicide rarely “just snap.” Significant behavioral changes and warning signs nearly always accompany the possibility of self-harm. Pay attention to indications like increased alcohol use, lack of motivation, lack of communication, attendance issues, increased aggression or agitation, changes in performance, a disheveled appearance and inability to concentrate. Keep an eye on significant emotional shifts as well, especially depression, tearfulness and mood swings.
Overall, trust your gut. If you sense a major change, ask the employee what’s wrong. If you have a strong suspicion, it’s even OK to ask the employee if they are contemplating suicide. “[For] most people, it feels very embarrassing, it feels very awkward, and there’s a lot of resistance to that.” I will say that many people who are contemplating suicide would like to be asked. That gives them an opportunity to open up.
For employers who are hesitant to get involved with their employees’ personal lives, it might be tempting to simply send a troubled employee home for the day — or a longer period of time — and hope for the best. This can be a big mistake, according to the panelists.
“The first thing you need to do is to make sure that person is safe.” Look up the employee’s emergency contact and let that person know the employee is thinking about or has threatened suicide. Wait until that person can come and pick up the individual. If the employee is working remotely, employers can involve the emergency contact, or in an emergency, call the police and ask for a welfare check.
But if you know the emergency contact to be outdated and no longer on good terms with the employee — an ex-wife in a bitter divorce, for example — don’t release the at-risk employee into this person’s care, if possible. Try to find an alternative contact.
In the most serious cases — when a threat of self-harm is not only known, but imminent — call 911, an emergency contact, or if known, a treating therapist. Ask to have the employee taken directly to the hospital for evaluation and treatment.
A caring employer may want to drive the employee to the hospital themselves, but this could put both the employer and employee at risk. “You don’t want to put the manager in that kind of risk … that the employee en route to the hospital [is] going to, for example, swing open the car door in the middle of a busy highway.”
Maintaining mental health is a continuous journey; if you’re concerned about an employee, or if an employee has already had a crisis and is back at work, do more than check in once and move on. “It’s not enough just to send them to the [employee assistance program] or to say, ‘How’re you doing?’ and you have a nice conversation.” “Follow up with them. See how they’re doing.”
But “ask a genuine question that’s going to get a genuine answer.” A perfunctory “How’re you doing?” may feel like it’s an adequate check-in, but it’s likely to get just as perfunctory a response. “You have to do a little bit more in terms of communication.” “Ask something more specific. ‘COVID-19 has been really hard on everybody, working from home. How has it impacted you?’ And then actively listen.”
Employers can take plenty of actions right now to reduce the risk of suicide scenario. Hold all-staff meetings that destigmatize talking about mental health. Provide workers with work-sponsored “wellness” time off and look into expanding mental health benefits. Talk to employees about what to do if they’re concerned about a co-worker. Ensure employees know about everything their existing benefits can provide, from EAPs and free counseling to telehealth. Share the contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) alongside benefits information in the employee handbook.
Finally, build suicide awareness and prevention into your workplace emergency response plan. In a crisis, it’s common to freeze or make the wrong call. Ensure managers and other employees are prepared and understand what to do if they recognize an imminent suicide risk at work.