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Suicide Prevention in the Workplace: How Employers Can Help


Suicide is among the top ten causes of death in Canada. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 4,000 people die by suicide every year.

When a co-worker dies by suicide, it takes a huge emotional and mental toll on the rest of the team. Colleagues and work friends may experience shock, grief, confusion, and often, guilt, that they failed to notice that something was not right.

To prevent suicide and offer timely help, it is important that employers create awareness in the workplace about the significance of mental health.

Why do people take such an extreme step?

Mental health experts say a suicidal person sees ending their life as the only way to escape their pain and suffering. They may feel overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, self-hate, depression and may be unable to see a way forward.

What are the signs to watch out for?

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), people at risk of suicide may:

  • show an abrupt change in mood or behaviour
  • exhibit a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, intense anxiety
  • increase substance use
  • withdraw socially and avoid friends, family, and activities that they previously enjoyed
  • neglect their appearance
  • articulate the wish to die or end their life (for e.g. “Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t here”)
  • give away cherished possessions or prepare for their death (like creating a will)
What preventive steps can employers take?

As the employer/manager, you are familiar with your team’s strengths, shortcomings, habits, and backgrounds, especially if your employees have worked for you for a long period.

This puts you in a unique position to notice changes in behaviour and/or output when a worker may be struggling to cope.

Investing in the mental wellbeing of your team is not only good for your staff but also for your business. A workplace that cares for employee wellbeing sees higher employee engagement and productivity.

Employers should:

Make efforts to destigmatize mental health in the workplace

Start a dialogue about mental wellbeing in the workplace. You can do so by sharing resources and information using internal communication tools. Normalizing conversations about mental health struggles may encourage those struggling to seek help.

Connect employees to mental health resources

It is a good practice to offer an employee assistance program. EAPs provide confidential counselling services to employees who may be experiencing personal difficulties (for e.g., family violence, job stress, substance abuse). This gives them on outlet to talk about their problems before they become overwhelming.

If you offer an EAP, regularly remind employees about the benefits and how to access it, if needed. Make information about emergency resources like crisis lines, and community resources, available in your workplace.

Educate employees about suicide

Inform employees about risk factors, symptoms of suicidal behaviour, available support and coping strategies to deal with problems. You could also invite an expert to give a talk on the subject.

Or you could offer training on suicide prevention, such as ASIST training or Mental Health First Aid.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has created a National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. It includes guidelines, resources, and tools to assist employers in promoting mental health in the workplace.

If your employees are struggling with mental health due to the pandemic, inform them of the free mental health resources offered by your province (OntarioAlberta, and British Columbia).

Check in regularly with staff

Organize weekly or daily catchups with employees, especially if you are working remotely because of the pandemic. Watch for signs of mental health struggle or overwhelming anxiety or stress.

If you are concerned about an employee, ask your HR manager or EAP counsellor how to help them.

If an employee opens up to you about a mental illness or suicidal thoughts, get them the help they need. Remember to always maintain confidentiality.

The Centre for Suicide Prevention, Alberta, offers guidance in this video on how to talk to someone struggling with thoughts of suicide.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Crisis Conversation Guide is also a good resource.

Prevent workplace bullying and harassment

You must put clear policies in place to prevent bullying in the workplace. Bullying in the workplace can lead to or worsen mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

For individuals already experiencing suicidal risk factors (mental illness, prior suicide attempts, substance abuse, domestic violence, bereavement, social isolation), workplace bullying may put them at a greater risk of suicide.

Bullying and harassment in the workplace can also expose employers to legal claims.

Create a mental health policy for your workplace

Your mental health policy should set down the procedure to follow when an employee makes a mental health disclosure and requests accommodation. You should train supervisors to sensitively handle such requests.

Ensure that the policy is included in your employee handbook and shared with your staff.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 9-1-1. If you are experiencing distress, please contact Crisis Services Canada. You can call their toll-free phone service at 1-833-456-4566 (24×7) or text 45645 (4 p.m. to midnight ET).

Do you need help creating a mental health policy?

Our experts can help you develop company policies as well as with any other HR, health and safety, or employment advice you may need. See how we have helped other small and medium businesses get their business compliant with provincial legislation.