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Leaders Have An Important a Role to Play in Preventing Suicide, But First We Must be Willing to Talk About It

Leaders Have An Important a Role to Play in Preventing Suicide, But First We Must be Willing to Talk About It

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when leaders and employees alike were expected to ‘leave personal business at home’ and ‘keep work about work’. Thankfully, we have a much greater understanding today that what affects us in one area of our life will also affect the others – with mental illness perhaps being the best example.

In recent years, leaders have begun to harness that knowledge to normalize conversations about mental health in the workplace. And yet, for many of us, the topic of suicide remains barricaded behind walls of stigma and fear of saying the wrong thing.

As leaders, it’s essential that we begin to break down those walls. By doing so, we can play an active role in preventing suicide, and empower others to do the same.

The new year may bring new challenges

As we enter each new year, many of us are filled with hope for a brighter future. This year, however, that optimism may be stymied by the reality of the ongoing pandemic and its consequences on mental health. With the average person spending around one third of their lives at work, employers have an important role to play in supporting those who may be struggling.

Prior to the pandemic, we knew that suicide was one of the leading causes of death in both men and women from adolescence to middle age. Since the onset of COVID-19, the number of people with feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide has increased, particularly among certain populations.

Suicide is complex and typically the result of multiple factors. We need to continue to be cautious with oversimplified causative statements. While history demonstrates the potential for the COVID-19 pandemic to impact suicide rates, an increase in suicide is not inevitable.

It’s essential that we equip ourselves and employees with the skills to have meaningful conversations about suicide, to provide support and resources, and to bring hope to someone who may be struggling.

Overcoming the stigma around suicide won’t happen overnight

Frequently promoting emergency resources like crisis lines, employee benefits, employee assistance programs and community resources, and providing information about how to contact help are all important ways leaders can help break down the stigma around mental illness.

However, the stigma that surrounds suicide is as strong as it is pervasive. Driven by fear and myths, it is still a barrier that prevents people from seeking – and offering – help.

Following are some steps you can take to reduce stigma in your workplace:

  • Tackle myths – It is a common myth that if you ask someone if they are thinking of suicide, you may plant the idea in their head. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Often, what you’re doing is opening a vital channel of communication – one that could veritably save a life.
  • Offer (and partake in) training – By providing education about appropriate, non-stigmatizing language and training, such as ASIST, Mental Health First Aid, and The Working Mind, leaders and staff will be better equipped to hear what someone might be going through and guide them to help and resources.The MHCC’s Suicide Prevention in the Workplace mini-guide includes links to resources and a conversation guide that can help.
  • Create safe spaces – Some people may struggle with fear of the conversation being overheard. Provide access to (physical or virtual) safe spaces where workers and/or managers can talk about how they are feeling with privacy and discretion.
  • Practice active listening – A disengaged listener can quickly deter someone from expressing their thoughts or reaching out for help. If someone is talking to you about potential suicidal ideation, practice active listening techniques such as empathy and mirroring. The MHCC’s tips on talking to someone in crisis can help.
  • Take care of yourself, too – Talking about suicide can be very taxing on the person trying to help. If you or another employee offer their support, it’s also important to take time for self-care following the conversation.

Reminder: January 26 is Bell Let’s Talk Day:
Supporting ourselves and each other.

Join the conversation.


Identify and recognize social dynamics and workplace factors that can affect mental health

Some people in our workplaces may be at greater risk. Awareness about the social dynamics and workplace factors that can affect mental health can help to us to connect with people who may need support, link them with resources (including crisis support) and address issues in the workplace that might affect a person’s risk of suicide.

Harassment, bullying, and stigmatizing language increase the risk of suicide — be prepared to name and respond to these realities.

Employees and their families may also be affected by financial concerns, the risk of job loss or other sources of stress, fear, and uncertainty. Research shows clear links between suicide and economic recession, which is a well-documented consequence of pandemics. A recession can aggravate individuals’ existing stressors (e.g., job loss, housing and/or food insecurity), compound pre-existing mental illness, and amplify distress, substance use, and suicide.

Research also indicates that certain subgroups (i.e., Indigenous people, racialized groups, individuals who identify as 2SLGBTQ+, people with a disability, and/or people with mental health problems) are two to four times as likely to have had suicidal thoughts or tried to harm themselves since the outbreak of COVID-19. It is critical to identify the unique underlying factors contributing to the negative mental health impact of COVID-19 and take a targeted and tailored approach in supporting individuals within each subgroup.

The Suicide Prevention Resource Centre in the U.S. has a library of resources targeted to particular subgroups. You can find them by filtering by “Populations” on the Resources and Programs page.

Be prepared to respond swiftly after a suicide loss

When a person takes their own life, it significantly impacts the community. A 2018 study found that, for each person who dies by suicide, up to 135 people in will be directly and indirectly affected. Your workplace is a part of your community, and the effects of a suicide often reverberate throughout the organization.

If a suicide occurs, communicate with care and compassion. Be available, flexible, and aware. Employees may experience shock and grief, which can affect their ability to focus. They may also need time to process or grieve and need flexibility in their schedule. Keep in mind that people have different ways of grieving, and their needs may vary.

Additional considerations maybe include:

  • Privacy – Protect the privacy of the deceased and their loved ones. Refer to human resources policies, if appropriate.
  • Resources – Connect affected employees to relevant information, resources, and support. Provide access to information and resources, such as an employee assistance program, employee benefits, and/or community programs to support employees during this difficult time. (Additional resources can be found listed on the right side.)
  • Funeral arrangements – If the family of a deceased employee has agreed to provide information about a funeral or donations, be sure to communicate the information to employees. If the family has chosen a private service, communicate those wishes as well, so employees are not left wondering.

Talking about suicide doesn’t come naturally to most of us, but it is a critical piece of prevention. As leaders, is our responsibility to hone our abilities and equip our staff with the skills they need to navigate these difficult conversations. The more we can normalize the topic, address risk factors, and encourage help seeking, the more tragedies we can prevent.


Get to know the authors – Dr. Bill Howatt and Michel Rodrigue

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