Suicide and Mental Health: What Role Does Workplace Play?

Conversations around the coffee machine at work rarely turn to our mental health and wellness. Yet I have had at least 6 business clients in the last 10 years who have had an employee suicide during my time with them. Tom, a successful manager who was a type A performer, and former marine, had a reputation for precision that was legendary.  When he died on a Tuesday night with a gun, everyone was shocked. Everyone in his circle wondered, “how could we not know how he was doing?” Mark seemed a positive and content individual contributor whom no one expected would hang himself on a business trip. Everyone at the services company where she worked knew Bev was struggling with a divorce but no one thought it would come to her death by suicide.

Suicide Is A Problem

We have a real problem with people killing themselves. Oregon, where I live, ranks the 13th Statein terms of suicide rates with rates of depression in adults in our County ranging from 25-30%. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for Oregonians ages 15-34 and suicide rates among those 45-64 have risen by 50 % in recent years.

And it is not just here. Entrepreneurs have increasing rates of suicide. Silicon Valley has notoriously elevated rates of suicide in youth. The World Health Organization reports that suicide is the leading global cause of death for 15-19 year olds. WHO states that “depression alone accounts for 4.3% of the global burden of disease and is among the largest single causes of disability worldwide.” WHO also reports that the cumulative global impact of mental disorders in terms of lost economic output will amount to US$ 16.3 million million between 2011 and 2030.

I can only imagine the darkness and loneliness that must exist for someone to make the decision to end it all. I feel tremendously sad at the frequency with which this happens.

What do these deaths have to do with work?


Despite huge advances in employee wellness programs at work, mental health continues to be taboo in how we talk to each other there.  It is my firm belief that people make companies great, and that feeling seen and valued at work meets some of our very basic and normal needs for human connection.

Suicide is a preventable public health problem. It is often preceded by a period of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and/or life event such as job, relationship, or home loss. People feel bad for a long period of time, and usually in isolation, and the ultimate act of suicide takes place. Employers and leaders can and should take initiative in contributing to preventing suicides.

Here are 3 things you can do about suicide at work:

  1. Create a Healthy Workplace Culture: In the research for my book, Fit Matters, we discovered that Relationships and Culture are two of the key elements that tether employees to their workplace. We bring our very basic and real needs for connection right into work, where we spend the majority of our time.  Focusing all employees on noticing and supporting one another invites people to be vulnerable and open. This includes talking about the things they face outside of work that are hard, frightening, and traumatic. To create a healthy workplace we cannot only focus on the shining qualities each of us has–we must also see and courageously notice the qualities that may feel less than savory, like failure, self-criticism, fear of failure, stress, overwhelm, sadness, and isolation.
  2. Prepare People for Connection: The best colleagues I have worked over the past 35 years with have high emotional intelligence. They recognize and can describe their own emotional state, and can tune-in to the emotions of others (social capital.). It is critical that leaders understand what mental health looks like, can recognize the signs that someone is struggling, and can talk about it before a suicide occurs. In 2015 Google’s research on psychological safety was reported in the NYTimes and the work of their Project Aristotle revealed what really makes teams high performing. As writer Charles Duhigg described it, “… to be fully present at work, to feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy.”
  3. Make Mental Health Part of Wellness: It is easier to share at work when a family member has cancer than it is when we are dark, lonely, addicted, or mentally unwell. Most employers have HR or Wellness policies and resources specifically to support employees regarding health. We must also create wellness programs that emphasize mental health so that it becomes easier to talk about what is real for all of us some of the time. We need a way to bring our fear, or sadness, our addiction, our families issues, our safety at home, and our mental health, including depression and other co-occurring issues, in to the health conversation at work. Mental health is health, and to decrease suicide, we need to talk about mental health more often.

Here is the thing: depression is a manageable health condition.  It is not a character flaw or a  weakness.  We must be able to bring it to work unfettered by the stigma it carries. What we learn at work (business and organizational/work life) plays a huge role in how each of us manages our selves fully, at home and at work. Men, who suicide 3 times as often, are particularly at risk for lacking the skills to admit to weakness or pain due to stereotypes and history about tough rugged individualism.

If we really want to create workplaces that are fit for human life, we must embrace the messy, imperfect humanity that is US.  We must see each other fully, including how it feels on our worst days ever.

Suicides are not a social problem disconnected form the facts of business and economy, government and trade. They are the one ultimate endpoint for a series of hard and challenging emotions and issues that are unseen, unresolved, and private. People, who make companies great, must be well in order to bring it every day.

Are you listening to how your colleagues and employees are actually doing in terms of their mental health?

Do you have structures in place for depression and suicide that are easy for employees to access without exposure or stigma?

Jim Morris