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Responding to Suicide Warning Signs

A guide for managers.

Employees may spend more face-to-face time with coworkers and managers than their own family and friends. The workplace may represent a place of belonging. These reasons may contribute to an employee showing suicidal signs in the workplace. An employee may share thoughts with a coworker or make comments that are overheard. Coworkers or a manager might notice changes in behavior that are concerning.

Warning signs of suicide risk

  • Making direct statements about ending one’s life.
  • Making indirect comments like, “What’s the point of living?” “Life is meaningless.” “No one would miss me if I were gone.”
  • Talking or writing about death or dying (one’s own or the topic in general), including social media posts.
  • Mentioning having means and/or a plan for self-harm such as access to pills, guns, or other weapons.
  • Giving away possessions.
  • Asking about life insurance policy details, especially as it relates to cause of death.
  • Showing interest in end-of-life affairs, such as making a will, discussing funeral preferences, etc.
  • Noticeable changes in behavior or mood. The person might appear uncharacteristically sad, quiet, depressed, or withdrawn.
  • You might see neglect of work, appearance, or hygiene.
  • Voicing hopelessness or helplessness.

Increased risk

Seeing one or more warning signs in a person who has suffered a significant loss may indicate increased risk. Examples could be a death, divorce, a relationship breakup, loss of child custody, home foreclosure, bankruptcy, or job loss. Other significant risk factors are severe financial stressors, legal problems, an event causing disgrace or shame, substance abuse, and impulsivity.

What to do if an employee shows warning signs of suicide

It’s important as a manager to act quickly and gather information. You are not expected to do a suicide risk assessment, but asking questions can help determine appropriate next steps. Take all responses seriously.

Ask the employee about any suicidal thoughts

  • Check your company policy regarding contacting the employee by phone if the employee works offsite or is not at work.
  • As soon as you become aware of warning signs in the workplace, find the employee and don’t leave them alone.
  • Take them to a quiet, private place to have a conversation to determine next steps.
  • Be direct and let them know what you’ve learned. You might start with, “It’s come to my attention that you said, ‘My life is not worth living.’”
  • Ask the employee if they have had thoughts of ending their life. You might be concerned that this will give them the idea if they didn’t have it already, but research shows that, on the contrary, when asked this question, most people feel relief, not distress.1
  • You are giving them a sense of hope by making it OK to talk about it.
  • Give the employee a chance to explain. Listening is the most important thing you can do at this time.
  • Show your concern and support. Let the person know you care and you value them. Show understanding of their pain. Be compassionate, even if you feel angry or upset about what the person is considering.
  • Don’t challenge their values or minimize their pain. For example, avoid saying things like, “You don’t really want to do that,” or “Think about what it would do to your family.”
  • You can offer hope that, with the right help, solutions can be found for the problems that are leading the person to feel suicidal. But avoid the urge to question the employee about their problems. Don’t give advice or suggest solutions. Stay in the present.

If the employee is telling you that they intend to harm themselves:

  • Call 911. Safety is your priority.
  • Check your company policy regarding calling the employee’s emergency contact person to alert them of concerns.
  • You can say to the employee “Given what you’ve told me, I have concerns about your safety. I have a responsibility to make sure you get immediate help. Your safety is the most important thing right now.”
  • When calling 911, give all the details that the employee has shared with you and any statements the employee reportedly made to others.
  • When the emergency responders arrive, they will talk to the employee to assess further and determine next steps.
  • 911 may also need to be called in situations where the employee works offsite or has not reported to work in a reasonable amount of time and is not reachable. If the information you have presents an urgent concern, it’s better to call 911 to do a welfare/safety check than wait another day to see if the employee reports to work.
  • Once the immediate safety concern is addressed, consult with the appropriate resources within your company.

Managing the employee going forward

  • If your company has an employee assistance program (EAP) in place, there are additional resources in place. For example, sometimes a formal management referral to the EAP is appropriate to make sure the employee is following through with the help they need.

Take care of yourself

It can be very stressful when an employee displays warning signs of suicide. In addition to supporting your employee, don’t hesitate to get support for yourself.

Manager reassuring her female colleague in the office

1Risk of Suicide. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). (n.d.)., Accessed August 9, 2019 from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Related-Conditions/Suicide.