September 8 is RUOK Day – a day when we should stop to take the time to ask our friends, relatives or colleagues if they are OK. Suicide is a hugely complex issue and every person that considers taking their own life has a different scenario but even caring enough to ask if someone is okay could make a difference in a way you may not be able to realise at the time.
Nothing can really ever prepare you for the death of a workmate or colleague, especially if they have taken their own life. I know because in a large organisation I worked for a number of years ago, at a time when significant changes were occurring to many of the processes in the workplace and it was taking its toll on staff, a staff member took his own life in the workplace. Whilst his death wasn’t directly related to the changes occurring, he did have a work related injury and HR had been working with him on this issue.
As you can imagine it was shocking for everyone in his workplace, in fact, everyone that knew him in the organization, throughout the state. As a lot of staff were already in a bad place with changes occurring, it was difficult to know who needed assistance, how soon and for how long and the HR team worked hard to try and put measures in place to try and help work colleagues deal with his loss.
Responding as an organisation
We were fortunate to have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place so were able to have a team of people available in the workplace the next day for staff to be able to talk if they wanted. This is sometimes called critical incident counselling and can assist people in the immediate aftermath of an event. Whilst considered essential after such an event occurring, not everyone can process such an event so quickly and be in the right frame of mind to speak to a counsellor that quickly. It would be have been worthwhile for us to have the counsellors come in for a series of days over a number of weeks rather than just immediately after.
The same counsellors also contacted HR staff by phone to ensure they were coping. This was actually fairly confronting for me as I didn’t consider I needed the assistance and hadn’t asked for the phone call but this had been arranged by the HR Manager. Of course I was exactly the person they should have been speaking to as I had been very involved in the management of the injury, my Dad had recently died and I was part of the team managing changes to the organization but possibly didn’t have that insight at the time.
As well as the critical incident counselling, there was the opportunity for staff to go off site for one on one counseling or even have this over the phone. It was important for people to have options as we all grieve differently and process events at different timelines.
Lessons for Managers
What would you do as a Manager or a colleague of someone in a workplace who takes their own life? How do cope personally, how do you know where to go for resources and how do you then talk to your staff or other colleagues about what has happened?
We all need to have some of our own strategies in place to be able to tackle this issue because really you just never know who is at risk.
People react really differently to death and communication from Managers and between staff is critical in situations like this, even though some people won’t appear to appreciate or need it. That might come later but as a Manager you need to be able to offer the time and space anyway.
A lot of people in our workplaces were obviously sad and some were also really angry – some because they felt guilty and thought they should have seen the signs, some because the staff member chose to take his life in the workplace and a colleague found him, some were angry with HR and blamed us for managing his injury properly.
Some were angry with the managers of the area because they felt the Managers should have seen the signs. It was hard to listen to some of what was being said as we knew we had offered as much support as we could but we just listened and didn’t try to justify ourselves or push the blame to anyone else. What would be the point?
A few months after the death we also organised a Health Expo at various workplace locations and as well as people having the opportunity to check their physical health BeyondBlue provided us with a mountain of resources to give to people as well as having experts from their organisation on site for the duration of these expos. This were really good events as a little bit of time had passed and maybe people were starting to heal so the Beyondblue stand was a very popular one.
I think it would have been useful to run some type of facilitated workshop session for Managers around this time as well so people could talk amongst their peers about their experiences and discussed some of the difficulties they faced at the time and what could we do better next time.
The most important lesson I learned was that you can’t really be prepared after something like this happens but you have to be prepared to talk and, probably more importantly, you have to be prepared to listen.
- Use RUOK Day to ask if your colleagues are okay.
- If there is a death at work, remember everyone processes loss in their own time. They react and grieve differently.
- Be prepared to talk and start discussions but be more prepared to listen – to your staff or colleagues, to ask how they are, give people opportunities to talk about how they are feeling but also the space and time to do that, give them a chance to unload on you or to just be.
- Be present – whether you are a colleague or a Manager, be aware of how people are coping – have their work patterns changed, are they coming in later, does their appearance seem different, do they look like they might want to talk but don’t necessarily approach you or anyone else, is their work suffering, do they seem to be acting differently?
- Have resources in place for people to use – if your organisation is lucky to have an EAP, utilise their services as much as you can and provide contact details to everyone in case they want to do this on their own, in their own time. Look for information from organisations such as Beyondblue, Lifeline and the Black Dog Institute.
- Look after yourself and take the same opportunities as your staff – this is so important as many people may turn to you for assistance and you may also be grieving.
- Keep checking in with people – a debrief session for Managers may be useful to help them cope and work together as a team.
- When the time is right think about holding a memorial service or find a way to honour the person’s memory.
Do you or a loved one need help? Lifeline is available for 24/7 support on 13 11 14.