A total of 29,199 Americans died by suicide in 1999. I know how one of those suicides affected a company’s workforce because I worked closely with the employee who killed herself. As a member of the Human Resources Department, I knew the employee well, both personally and professionally. She was my manager. From my viewpoint in Human Resources, I saw the impact to both employees and the business.
Carolyn* was one of the first female executives of a major U.S. company. She had started her career in Texas and successfully climbed through the ranks of a male-dominated industry during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Carolyn was smart, attractive and tough. At the time of her suicide, she had recently been promoted to lead a major division of the company and had relocated with her husband. She was perceived by most to be at the top of her game.
Her sudden death by suicide hit both employees and the company hard.
Every employee death is tragic and can impact the workforce. But a death by suicide is unique in its ramifications to the workplace. The causes of suicide are complex. While an accidental death, such as with an automobile, will cause sadness and disruption within the workforce, a suicide can also cause confusion and feelings of guilt. Employees who wouldn’t think of holding themselves accountable for a co-workers’ accidental automobile death, will torture themselves with guilt over not having done enough to prevent a suicidal death.
Workplaces are communities. Whether it is large or small, tight-knit or hostile, a place of work has a culture about it. In many of today’s businesses, employees spend more time with co-workers than with family or friends. And due to the competitive nature of the business environment, employees depend upon each other to carry out shared business goals. As a result, deep and meaningful friendships are forged in the workplace among co-workers. Indeed, some businesses go so far as to promote their company culture as a “we are family” environment.
Whatever the dynamics of the workplace, the death by suicide of a co-worker creates shock, confusion, guilt and grief in varying degrees among employees. To make matters worse, employees’ emotional reactions are often hidden. An employee who feels extreme guilt believing he/she should have noticed a co-worker’s struggles before a suicide may be too ashamed to discuss their feelings or ask for help. The employee suffers and grieves alone and in silence.
Confusion reigns after the suicide of an employee. People have a basic need to understand a traumatic event and, more often than not, there is no clear explanation for a suicidal death. So there is no way to fill this human need to understand. That won’t prevent employees from attempting to find a reason for what has happened. Talk, speculation, rumor and gossip can run rampant throughout the organization immediately following a suicide. This is a painful phase of the healing process and it disrupts productivity.
Companies previously known to show tremendous compassion at the time of an employee’s death will suddenly retreat from engaging with employees after a suicide because they either don’t know what to do or they become defensive and fearful of possible legal repercussions.
In a business environment, livelihoods are at stake. Employees can’t help wondering, “What does this mean for me?” The sudden tragic loss of a key employee can put a major project in danger, threatening others’ jobs. Or an employee called upon to fill the vacancy created by a co-worker’s suicide may feel guilty or unworthy as a result of benefiting from a colleague’s tragic death. Pressure to “get back to work” so as to preserve job security can short-circuit employees’ need to process the event and grieve.
Carolyn’s suicide affected employees deeply and widely across the company. Shock and confusion were the immediate reactions to the news that she had taken her life. Because she was highly respected and perceived as successful within the company, employees couldn’t understand her death by suicide. Speculation about the cause of her suicide lasted for a very long time following her death – years in fact. The loss of Carolyn from a key role in the company during a critical business acquisition caused a loss of confidence among some employees. Others worried about the impact to their careers. The amount of guilt and grief suffered by those who had worked closely with her for years was immeasurable.
Resource for employers:
WorkingMinds.org – Website provides tools and networks to workplaces to aid with suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention.
*The name has been changed.