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Suicide and the Workplace
Posted 06.27.18
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Jonathan A. Segal
Partner
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Mental health matters. Here is my post to The SHRM Blog on importance of addressing suicide and mental health in the workplace.

In the last month, two celebrities took their lives, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  To be more specific, they committed suicide.

It is important to say the word “suicide” because many media reports, at least initially, did not.  There is still, for some, discomfort with mental health issues in general and suicide in particular.

As with #metoo, high-profile cases draw our attention to an issue that is not limited to the high-profile.   Alarmingly, the suicide rate has increased by 25 percent since 1999.

But what does this have to do with employers?  Do employers have any legal duty to prevent suicide?

For the most part, the answer is generally “no.”  But that does not mean employers should not focus on the issue.

The law sets a minimum.  Responsible employers who genuinely care about their employees go further.

What can you do as an employer? What should HR do?

  1. Educate yourself and your leaders on suicide.  Severe depression, often coupled with substance abuse, is one of the primary causes of suicide.  Do not expect employees to just “deal with it.”  Substitute “cancer” for “depression” and you will see how cold and/or ignorant someone may sound if they suggest mental illness is weakness.
  2. Offer your employees access to professional help by way of an employee assistance program (an “EAP”).  As we all know, an EAP is a very inexpensive way to offer employees anonymous support for myriad issues from substance abuse to marital problems to suicidal ideation. If you don’t have an EAP, make the business case to get one.
  3. Share with your employees information about the national suicide prevention hotline.  I will do that just now: 1-800-273-Talk (8255). Why would you not?
  4. Emphasize when you discuss your health benefits both physical and mental health.  It does not hurt to message explicitly that there is no stigma in getting mental health support—no more than getting dialysis.
  5. Consult with a professional if an employee is talking about suicide, directly or indirectly, or if you have objective reason to be concerned about an employee (e.g., talking about helplessness). Obtain guidance on how to speak with the employee.  Yes, there may be some risk under the ADA in removing the employee from the workplace and requiring an assessment (‘perceived disability’ claim).  But that risk must be balanced against the human risk (among others) if your fear contributes to the employee’s decision to end it all.  Further, with careful planning, while the ADA risk cannot be eliminated, it can be minimized materially.
  6. Respond to disparaging, demeaning or hurtful comments about mental disabilities.  Such comments may increase the unwarranted shame and the risk of suicide.  Indeed, address as part of your efforts to educate your workforce on unacceptable behavior of a harassing nature.
  7. Revisit your wellness program.  Is there enough focus on mental health?  Do not assume the answer is yes. We need to add light to the issue so that people do not hide for fear of societal judgment and the life-threatening risks that go with it.
  8. Focus on respect in your leadership training. Being abusive may not be illegal but it is bad behavior that may take its victim to an even darker place.  Bullies are weak but they inflict penetrating pain.
  9. Get help yourself if you have had thoughts about suicide.  It is not weakness.  I cannot think of any greater act of strength.
About Jonathan A. Segal
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Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris LLP in the Employment Group. He is also the managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute. The Duane Morris Institute provides training for human resource professionals, in-house counsel, and other leaders at client sites and by way of webinar on myriad employment, leadership labor, benefits and immigration topics. Jonathan has served intermittently as a consultant to the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C. for more than 20 years, providing training on employment issues to federal judges around the country. Jonathan also has provided training on harassment on behalf of the EEOC as well as providing training on diversity to members of the United States intelligence agencies. Jonathan is also frequently a featured speaker at national, state and local human resource, business and legal conferences, including conferences sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Pennsylvania State Chamber of Business and Industry. Jonathan’s practice focuses on maximizing compliance and minimizing legal risk. Jonathan’s particular areas of emphasis include: equal employment opportunity in general and gender equality in particular: social media; wage and hour; performance management; talent acquisition; harassment prevention and correction; and non-competes and other ways to protect your business. You can find him on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law .