No one knows how many people are affected each year by the suicide of a co-worker. What is known is that nearly 40,000 Americans (1 million people worldwide) die by suicide each year. The majority of suicide deaths are working-age adults, 24-65 years old.
It has been said that for every suicide, six people – primarily family and friends – are impacted. This number is considered by many to be conservative and to vastly underestimate the effect. What it doesn’t take into account are the work colleagues who also go through the experience. Unfortunately, it is impossible to locate verified statistics on the magnitude of employees impacted by a suicide in the workplace. The research just hasn’t been conducted yet.
So how are co-workers affected by the suicide death of a colleague? It can depend on several factors including the closeness of the relationship with the deceased, the employee’s ability at that point in their life to handle grief, and the deceased employee’s position and sphere of influence.
In today’s society, it is not unusual for workers to spend a substantial portion of each day either at work or connected to work. In many cases, we spend more time with co-workers than with family or friends. Often our co-workers are some of our closest friends. As a result, strong relationships and bonds can be forged with them.
When a co-worker dies by suicide, employees react in different ways. Some are able to grieve, adjust and return to productivity in a relatively short period of time. For others,the impact can be much more profound. Grief is personal and can be deep and complex.
The level of position held by the employee who dies under these circumstances can also be a factor in the effect on the workforce. The death of someone managing a significant part of a company or a major project can affect the future success or profitability of the company and, therefore, the employees’ security. Losing an influential company leader who has been a mentor to others can damage morale.
And the hard reality is that any death in the workplace creates a vacancy. A vacancy creates disruption and, ultimately, vacancies have to be filled. Replacing someone who has died by suicide can be difficult for management as well as the person who assumes the role. It can take a very long time for the workforce to accept the change and resume anything resembling normal operations.
Given the many ways in which a workforce can be impacted by a suicide, the number of employees left suffering could be in the tens of thousands each year – in the U.S. alone.
Not being able to easily identify and quantify those affected by workplace suicide is part of the difficulty businesses encounter when responding to the tragedies. A shift in approach by employers is needed. Placing more effort toward suicide prevention will reduce the need to recover from this type of devastating loss.
One of the largest bank employers appears serious about improving the working conditions of its analysts. The most recently hired class of Bank of America analysts will be 40% larger than last year’s class. The recruiting surge heralds a change in corporate culture and follows several recent events.
A Bank of America intern died in London last year. At the time, media speculation pointed to overwork as the cause of death.
Kevin Roose chronicled the less-than-desirable quality of life of several analysts in his book, Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits.
Read New York Times article: Bank of America Hires More Junior Bankers
I first found myself talking with a suicidal employee while on vacation with my husband in South Padre Island, Texas. I took a call from an HR coworker, David, a young man with progressive ideas and the energy to make things happen. He had recently been asked to develop and manage the bank’s work/life programs. He was enthusiastic about the opportunity. His wife had just given birth to their first child after several years of marriage. David embraced being a role model for men trying to balance the responsibilities of fatherhood with the demands of work.
David and I had developed a great rapport at work. Perhaps it was the fact that we were working closely on the work/life programs or that we were both from Texas. Whatever led to it, I had become something of a confidant to the younger man. I knew that the birth of his son had caused a major lifestyle adjustment for David and his wife. They had been married for several years without children and had grown accustomed to their freedom. They had hobbies, ate out at nice restaurants several nights a week, traveled often and enjoyed a footloose and free lifestyle. The birth of their son dramatically changed things, much more than either of them had expected.
I hadn’t realized the extent to which David had grown depressed following his son’s birth until I picked up the phone that day at the beach. David had tracked me down on vacation to talk. I had never heard the tone in his voice. He was distraught. He recognized and acknowledged that he was depressed. His life had been turned upside down by the birth of his child. He confided that he hated his new life. He wanted out.
I suddenly found myself talking with a severely depressed, suicidal young man. He had reached out to me for no other reason than because I was a work friend, someone to whom he felt he could talk. Shocked by how quickly the conversation had escalated from David talking about being “down” to voicing the notion of suicide as the answer, I felt panic. There was no doubt this was a critical situation. I found myself looking out the glass doors of the condo at my husband lying under a beach umbrella serenely reading a novel while I stood there listening to David openly contemplate suicide. Nothing in my HR training had prepared me for this.
I was able to talk David into allowing me to create a conference call with one of the bank’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program) counselors. David would go that far, but he did not want to speak to the counselor directly. He was locked into the idea that he only wanted to talk to me. The conference call consisted of David talking to me about wanting to kill himself and, in brief spurts, me conferring offline with the counselor about how to handle the situation.
My goal became convincing David to let me transfer him to the EAP counselor. Unlike me, the counselor had been trained in working with those who were depressed and suicidal. I didn’t know the counselor with whom I was conferring, but I remember him as extremely kind and patient as he gently coached me in how to encourage my distraught coworker to speak with him.
The phone conversation between David, the EAP counselor and me went on like this for a very long time, more than an hour. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, David agreed to be transferred to the counselor. I managed to hand David over to this trained professional, but as soon as I hung up the phone, I collapsed sobbing onto the living room sofa. I had never felt such a heavy responsibility for another person. I had felt responsible for preventing David from harming himself, and yet totally untrained in how to handle such a situation.
Fortunately, the story of David and his family had a happy ending: The EAP counselor was successful in helping David through that awful day and David overcame the depression brought on by the changes in his family life.
You might expect, as a result of this situation, HR employees in the bank would have immediately received training in identifying and responding to suicidal tendencies of employees. That was not the case. I was thanked and congratulated for having helped David through a difficult situation, but there was no acknowledgement of the imperative for being prepared for such serious experiences.
Even though I was well aware of the need for this type of training, I did not seek it out on my own either. The only explanation I can come up with today is that I expected my sudden exposure to a suicidal employee to be an isolated event.
Of course, that was a bad assumption. The phone call with David turned out to be only the first of several interactions with suicidal employees over the course of my career.
Anyone can suddenly find themselves in a position to prevent a suicide. Knowing how to identify the signs that someone might be suicidal and what to do can be critically important. Employers and HR professionals should ensure they are adequately trained and prepared to respond to employees suffering from depression.
The phone rang at 5 a.m. in an efficiency-sized corporate apartment in San Francisco. A still-sleeping Dallas banker, in the Bay Area working on a corporate project, answered it with a sense of dread. There are no good phone calls at that time of day. Steve*, one of the bank’s most senior executives and someone she had worked with for many years, went straight to the point. “I am so sorry to tell you this, but Carolyn killed herself last night.” Carolyn was her manager.
No words the banker had heard to this point in her life were as shocking. It simply was not possible that Carolyn could have killed herself. She and Carolyn had spoken on the phone the afternoon before. Taking care of business. Everything had been fine. Carolyn was fine.
Her immediate reaction was to argue. “That’s not possible. Carolyn couldn’t have done that. There must be a mistake.” Steve insisted there was no mistake. Carolyn was dead. She had killed herself. They went back and forth like this a few times. The banker telling Steve he was wrong; her colleague assuring her it was true. Steve finally got through to the disbelieving banker when he said. “I swear to you, there wasn’t a &#%!ing thing going on at work that would have caused Carolyn to kill herself.” This struck the banker as ridiculous and made her a little angry. “Of course not, Steve!” She emphatically answered. “Carolyn wouldn’t’ kill herself over a job, for God’s sake!”
But the banker had finally absorbed the fact that Carolyn was dead and that she had killed herself. Later, and for years after, the banker would clearly remember that within the first few minutes of that awful phone call, Steve and she were convincing each other that the job was not the cause of Carolyn’s suicide.
The above story is my story. I was that Texas banker living in San Francisco and working on a bank acquisition when I received the news that my boss had taken her life. I had worked for Carolyn, on and off, for a decade. If anyone had asked me how I felt about her, I would have said she was my manager and my mentor. I had a tremendous amount of professional respect for her. It was a joy to work for her. It wasn’t until her tragic death that I discovered she had also been a dear friend; someone I loved very much. Her death devastated me. It took years to recover.
It has been fifteen years since that morning in 1999. Having lived through, and recovered from, a suicide in the workplace, I want to share what I learned from the life-changing experience.
*All names have been changed.