A Review of Work-Related Suicide

Suicide within companies is a lethal outcome that is potentially preventable. Early detection and management is critical. To do this, having a finger on the emotional pulse of an organization is important, as is the ability to know how to handle stressful situations and when and whom to refer to when stress is out of control.

by Srini Pillay

While a suicide affects the victim and the victim’s family, it can also have a profound impact on the wellbeing of the company. Given the current global economy, extreme stress is very likely. As I pointed out in my other book: “Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders” stress impacts the brains of all workers, and can impact productivity and company profits. Educating staff with the help of an expert executive coach about stress management can be very helpful. In addition to this, having an increased awareness of this problem and a practical action plan may prove to be vital to the success of any company. Work-related stress is at an all-time high in our society today. Factors that may lead to such stress include overworking, bullying, unemployment and job insecurity. The impact of stress is varied – ranging from little to no impact to severe unhappiness and burnout. In extreme cases such stress at work may also lead to suicide. The link between work-related stress and suicide appears to know no geographical boundaries, having been documented now in Japan, England and Wales, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Lithuania and several other countries. Furthermore, the types of work in which stress may lead to suicide also vary considerably ranging from people who work at all levels of corporations to medical doctors, veterinary workers, dentists, migrant workers and police officers. In some instances, such as the example of France Telecom where more than 30 suicides have plagued the company since 2008, the connections between work-related stress and suicide have seemed to be more obvious whereas in others the situation may receive less public attention despite being a growing concern. In this article, we will examine the following questions:

1. What goes on in the mind of someone who reaches the point of wanting to kill himself or herself?
2. Do men and women differ and why?
3. What are some of the things that you need to consider if you are stressed, suicidal or a victim of bullying?
4. How can HR Directors communicate this information internally and externally?

Feeling suicidal rarely occurs “out of the blue.” It is usually preceded by significant stressors that make a person feel out of control or stuck. When these stressors escalate, this stuckness may lead to feelings of desperation, hopelessness, rage, anxiety, abandonment, loneliness, guilt, humiliation, and self-hatred. As I mention in my book Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, these feelings may be either conscious or unconscious. Together with depression, people may experience disturbances in sleep and appetite, reduced energy and concentration, decreased interest in day-to-day activities at work, prominent guilt feelings, and a general feeling of being slowed down or too agitated together with suicidal feelings. People who are anxious may start to worry excessively, become easily labile or angry, start to feel panicky or even start to obsess more about what they have to do to the point of them slowing down. Sometimes, suicidality occurs in workers who feel bored or devalued. When they do not feel recognized or appreciated for the work that they do, their happiness and satisfaction start to wane and suicidal thoughts may increase as life starts to feel as if it has no purpose. Alice B. is a bank teller who came to see me for depression. In the course of telling me about her depression, she revealed that she was in fact suicidal. When I explored this further, it turned out that she was so bored by her job that she dreaded waking up every day to get to it. She was becoming more and more disgruntled and had reached the point where she felt that life had no meaning any more – she was a mere automaton. Adam A. had a similar feeling about his work in sales. Every day, he prepared himself for a day of rejection and annoyance in having to meet his quota. When he walked into my office one day, he simply said, “I can’t do this anymore. When I was little, it was not my dream to grow up to be someone who made cold calls every day to try to sell something he isn’t even really interested in. And there is nowhere else for me to go.” It is this stuckness and lack of meaning that starts the ball rolling toward suicide. A recent article that studied the cases of suicide in France Telecom showed that human beings need some form of recognition for the work that they do, and when this recognition is lacking, it starts to erode the meaning of life and work, leading to a threat to their psychological integrity. According to The Huffington Post, as of March 2010, at least 9 workers at iPhone and iPad manufacturing Foxconn factories in China had killed themselves along with many others who appeared to have survived attempts. Andrew Leonard, a writer for salon.com summarized his feelings on this, “I don’t know about you, but if I was working 12 hours a day, six days a week, plugging circuit boards into Apple gadgets that sell for more than I might make in a month, and I looked out the window and saw nets being installed to keep co-workers from dashing their brains out on the streets below, I’d start to feel a little depressed.” This emphasizes the facts that exhaustion and repetitive work may pose a risk to workers as well and when wages are insufficient to pay debts, a recent study showed that the rate of suicidal ideation increases too.

Men and women differ in complex ways when it comes to suicide. Some studies show that men tend to choose more lethal means to kill themselves than women do but who kills themselves depends on more than just gender. For example, one study showed that female physicians are more likely to kill themselves while other studies point to other factors that need to be considered. A study of Chinese youth, for example, showed that female suicide victims especially without mental disorders tended to act on impulsivity and used nonviolent means such as pesticide consumption for suicide. Another study showed that males choose firearms, hanging, strangulation, suffocation and jumping as suicide methods whereas females choose similar methods but not firearms as the most frequent methods of suicide. Furthermore, gender-related suicide rates also vary by culture. For example, lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts was 3.4% in France (1.1% men, 5.4% women) and 1.5% in Spain (1.2% men, 1.7% women), with a statistically significantly greater gender difference in France. Similar differences have been found between Korean and Japanese men and women (increased gender difference in Japan) as well as Arab-Americans (AA) compared to non-ethnic white American men and women (lower rates in AA men and women but even lower for AA men). What this tells us is that we cannot generalize about whether men are more likely to kill themselves than women, that culture plays a role, but also that many other factors impact whether a person will kill themselves outside of gender. From a psychological standpoint, one view is that men tend to externalize their stress whereas women tend to internalize this. Anger in men and self-destruction in women may therefore be the first response, but the data show that eventually, this may even out depending on other factors. The result of suicide within companies may therefore occur in any vulnerable person regardless of gender.

Any of the stressful factors mentioned above may contribute to suicide within a corporation, but one of the common situations that leads to this outcome is workplace bullying. Jon Weiner, an account executive at Capstrat shares that a recent survey by Workplace Options, a leading global provider of work-life benefits and employee support services, reveals that nearly half (47%) of workers have witnessed, or know someone who has been a victim of workplace bullying. Furthermore, 31% of respondents say they have personally been a victim of bullying in the office. Moreover, in this survey, more than 90% of respondents believe workplace bullying can cause feelings of frustration and hopelessness, panic or anxiety about going to work, and physical symptoms such as an inability to sleep or loss of appetite. According to the survey, half of respondents do not think their employers take appropriate measures to discourage and reprimand bullies, or are unsure if any measures are taken. It is this hopelessness that can lead to suicide, and rather than wait for this extreme situation, employers would be wise to take appropriate steps to address this.

New Jersey employment attorney and conflict resolution expert Sheila O’Shea-Criscione shares that a recent CareerBuilder survey shows that segments most likely to report feeling bullied were women workers aged 55 or older (29%) and workers aged 24 or younger (29%). In addition, women reported a higher incidence of being treated unfairly at the office (34% of women vs. 22% men)
and 28% of workers reported the situation but a majority (62%) said no action was taken.
The fact that women are more likely to experience bullying is significant as women are generally also more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. In fact, women are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than men. Since both depression and anxiety are associated with suicide, this places women especially at risk for suicide. In fact, it is not just the rate of illness but the actual impact of the illness that is greater in women than men.

If you are acutely suicidal, a hospital emergency room is your best option to receive the care you need. If you are starting to get frustrated, there are other options to consider. Asher Adelman, who was a victim of workplace bullying, created and launched eBossWatch, the nation’s leading career resource that enables people to anonymously rate their bosses and avoid workplace bullies. This provides some form of catharsis and also allows people to see if their problem is shared and understood by others. Roberta Matuson, the former HR Careers Expert for Monster and a Leadership Expert for Bostonworks.com, is also the author of Suddenly In Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around. In response to how she thinks people should deal with begin bullied at work to the point of feeling stuck, she states, “…you have to call these people out on their behavior. In most situations, they will being shocked that someone has had the nerve to strike back. They will then find another target. Of course there are also those situations where the bully is the owner and she has no intentions of changing her behavior. You have to reconcile with yourself how much you are willing to put up with. I usually advise people to immediately seek other employment as these situations can scar people for life.” While this would be ideal, for many people, leaving their current employment is not an option. In fact, this is precisely what creates the feeling of stuckness that can lead to suicide. Bert Alicia, is a licensed psychologist and Vice President of EAP and Work/Life Services at Health Advocate Inc. Health Advocate, which is an advocacy and assistance company that helps people navigate the healthcare system. Bert confirms that harassment is one of the top trainings requested today by organizations: “One of the main reasons organizations want this training in workplace bullying is to decrease their potential liability. If they can show the courts that they have a policy in place and have provided the necessary training and awareness to management they minimize their financial risk by ’making a good faith effort.’ A policy in and of itself is not enough. HR has dropped the ball because many HR departments are being ‘squeezed today’ because of tough economic times and that creates problems because they have a short staff with multiple projects and sometimes this issue (which is usually brought up by an employee as ‘feeling disrespected’) is not at the top of their pile and then gets pushed downward as more HR issues come up.” Since this appears to be a specific vulnerability for HR, having a well-described and semi-automated procedure in place could considerably help HR not to drop the ball due to other immediate and pressing priorities.

How should HR respond when suicide is an issue?
Ed Foulke, senior lawyer, partner with Fisher and Phillips and former Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA recommends the following:

1. To minimize stress-inducing behavior, HR should have a policy against harassment in place.
2. They should also have a mechanism to prevent the ‘publishing of false statements’ that may have the potential to lead to shame and subsequent suicide.
3. They should have a zero-tolerance policy if harassment is present.
4. They should have a mechanism in place for workers to be able to confidentially report their complaints.
5. They should encourage and train people to report to supervisors.
6. HR needs to have a quick response plan in place.
7. All workers need to be aware of the disciplinary consequences of acts that lead to malicious harm.
8. Upper management has to show support for these policies in words and actions – HR should mediate this.
9. HR should have resources for investigation and follow-through. This can be tied into a code of conduct, vision or values statement.

For the above to be smoothly executed, HR would need to do more than simply have a passive procedure in place. Early detection of suicide would be best, so looking out for workers who have any of the symptoms mentioned above, interviewing those workers, providing support where necessary (e.g. referral to a professional or EAP service), and following-up would be critical within the company.

[W      laborlawyers.com      osha.gov      salon.com     workplaceoptions.com]

Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Winter 2011

Illustrations by Shinichi Imanaka, Hyogo, Japan