Responding to the unthinkable – Donna Thistlethwaite

You hang up the phone in total shock. You never saw it coming. An employee’s relative has just informed you that one of your team won’t be coming back to work … Yesterday they died by suicide.

This a call you never want, or expect to receive, yet with eight Australians dying by suicide every day (and that’s pre-Covid), this is a call that many leaders across our country are needing to respond to. I was asked to provide advice on this scenario a few months back when an HR contact found herself responding to the suicide death of an employee whose position had been made redundant some months earlier. It got me wondering how prepared businesses are for this eventuality.

Hopefully your organisation has incorporated a well-structured suicide postvention protocol into your crisis management plan but in case you haven’t yet, the following are some considerations and resources that may assist you in responding to a suicide in service.

Communicate quickly and transparently to employees about the death with a notification from the CEO or other senior representative. If the family requests that the cause of death be withheld this should be considered in light of the risk of distrust towards management if employees discover this information through other sources. You may find Guidelines developed by Mindframe, for the responsible reporting of suicide, helpful when crafting an appropriate message.

Supporting affected employees and containing the crisis needs to be one of your highest priorities. The type and amount of support each individual will need can vary significantly given individual differences, relationships to the deceased, an individual’s current mental health and other factors in their life. Mandatory debriefing or counselling after a traumatic event is no longer considered best practice1, although counselling should be offered on a voluntary basis to affected employees immediately and over time where needed.

If you have an Employee Assistance Program provider, they should be well equipped to support leaders and employees affected by the suicide. I have heard of organisations offering employees EAP sessions above their standard allocation in these circumstances. Remember that leaders may also be significantly impacted by the loss and may require support while managing the crisis and beyond.

The nationwide Standby Support After Suicide service offers extensive support to organisations after a death by suicide. Their short-term support includes visits to workplaces to assist with the response, counselling, referral to services and workshops on supporting someone impacted by suicide. In Brisbane Standby can be contacted 24/7 on 0438 150 180 and this link will connect you to the service in other states and territories. These services are federally funded and are at no cost to your organisation.

There is a growing body of evidence that people bereaved by suicide are at higher risk of suicidal behaviour2 so ensuring your employees are assisted to access appropriate supports can help to contain the impact of a suicide in the workplace and have a positive impact on suicide prevention.

Acknowledge and communicate that grief is a normal reaction to a death by suicide. Other types of death typically result in reactions such as shock; denial; sadness; confusion; and anger, however, those bereaved by suicide may also experience reactions such as shame; guilt; rejection; blame (self and/or others); sense of isolation and trauma.2

Monitor employees’ reactions and ongoing mental health. Most employees will transition through the grieving process without the need for clinical intervention2, however, there is a risk that grief will morph into a mental health problem. The duration, impact and intensity of symptoms are indicators that we discuss in Mental Health First Aid training as signposts that intervention may be warranted to assist an employee back to good mental health.

Honouring your employee can support bereaved employees and the deceased’s family. It’s a great idea to involve your employees, and even the family, in how the team or organisation would like to honour your passed employee. Ideas could include writing tributes to the employee that can be posted on a board and/or sent to the family, fundraising for suicide prevention, supporting a national initiative such as World Suicide Prevention Day or RUOK? Day and/or giving people “space to remember but not re-live”.3

Anniversaries or birthdays related to the deceased, and even their absence from celebrations such as the Christmas party, can trigger emotional reactions in employees, even after the usual grieving process has concluded. Recognising that this may occur and perhaps even planning an activity to mark the anniversary of the employees passing may help employees to deal with their grief.

Additional resources that that can support your response include:

  • Suicide Callback Service has excellent information regarding common experiences with suicide bereavement on their website
  • Lifeline offers an excellent fact sheet on supporting someone bereaved by suicide.
  • Beyond Blue shares extensive information regarding grief and suicide on this webpage.

While I hope that you never find yourself responding to the ‘unthinkable’, I would highly recommend that you prepare to some extent for the possibility. A brilliant resource to assist you is “Crisis management in the event of a suicide: a postvention toolkit for employers” out of the United Kingdom. This comprehensive toolkit guides you through all of the steps you will need to consider and most of the content is directly transferable to the Australian environment.

Unfortunately, some in our society will make a decision to end their lives, however, please know that suicide is preventable and that learning the warning signs of suicide and knowing how to have a mental health conversation can save lives.

If you’d like to know about mental health or resilience training, please contact Donna on 0419 120 601 or by email.

 

References

1Mental Health First Aid International, 2019, Standard MHFA Teaching Notes Session 3. Ed. 4 (not publicly available).

2 Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention and Postvention Australia, 2017, “Postvention Australia Guidelines:  A resource for organisations and individuals providing services to people bereaved by suicide. Link

3 The Prince’s Responsible Business Network (United Kingdom), 2017, “Crisis management in the event of a suicide: a postvention toolkit for employers”. Link

 

Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based speaker and trainer specialising in mental health and resilience. She is an accredited Mental Health First Aid instructor and Resilience at Work Facilitator with a passion for suicide prevention and for helping individuals, teams and organisations to THRIVE. You can find out about her next Mental Health First Aid course here.

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