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Employers must remove stigma of suicide

Speakers at the inaugural This Can Happen conference shared their advice for workplace suicide prevention and how to respond when the worst happens

Organisations need to break down the stigma around suicide and put in place preventative measures as well as a plan for how to respond if an employee takes their own life, according to speakers at the inaugural This Can Happen conference.

“We have had mental health first aid for 10 years across some sectors but suicide prevention education and training still has to be snuck in the back door,” said Nick Barnes, chief executive from the National Centre for Suicide Prevention Training UK CIC.

“The stigma around suicide prevails and only when we talk about it can we break down that stigma.”

Pointing to research showing very few employees feel comfortable speaking to HR about mental health, he said that this is even lower for those who are comfortable talking about suicide.

“The common attitude is that suicide is inevitable,” he said. “But suicide can be prevented.”

Barnes said that employers need to “embed safety into the culture of organisations” and “create the conditions for people to feel OK”, adding: “that’s about education and training”.

“People say there aren’t signs [for suicide] but how do they know if they’re not trained in what signs to look for?” he asked.

Having run suicide prevention training with corporate organisations, Barnes said there’s both the “unconscious” and “conscious” signs; for example “not everyone thinking of suicide will be standing on a bridge”.

“Asking [people how they are feeling] is key but how would you respond if someone said ‘yes I am thinking [about] suicide’ and you haven’t been trained?” he added, emphasising the importance of training employees and managers.

Carrie Birmingham, founder of Carrie Birmingham Consult, provided advice on dealing with the suicide of an employee. As the HR director at News UK during the phone-hacking scandal, she explained that – with 34 arrested employees – the possibility of suicide among the workforce “became a reality”. So HR had to make a plan of what to do if the worst happened.

“We couldn’t believe our job could come to that,” she said, but unfortunately it did when an employee did indeed take their own life. Birmingham spoke of three principles employers need to focus on in such a situation: choreograph the communication, think about the grieving process, and understand deeper patterns.

On choreographing the communication, she said that this means “pulling down the oxygen mask for yourself first”. Speaking about her own experience, she said she “took [her]self off to a private room and had a cry as I needed to take care of myself first”. “Only when I did that could I think about what to do next,” she explained.

Then it’s about finding out who the individual’s friends, family and connections are, to determine “who you need to tell” and “who will be affected”. Birmingham recommended telling employees the deceased was close to individually and then telling the team together “so people can share how they feel”.

The next principle involves paying attention to the grieving process of teams and individuals, Birmingham said. This could be setting up “listening circles” where colleagues speak about the person they lost, supporting anyone who might feel in some way guilty about the situation, and looking for ways to celebrate the person’s life, such as an event or charity donation. “That became part of something the organisation does each year so we showed we haven’t forgotten them,” she said.

Understanding deeper patterns means “if you pay attention to events like these it can lead you to look at what else is going on in the organisation”, Birmingham said of her third and final principle. At News UK this meant focusing on changing the media industry culture of alcohol and drugs, by educating people on what substance abuse looks like and equipping them with the tools to spot when others are in distress.