How can benefits support staff affected by suicide?

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Need to know:

  • Supporting an employee back to work after a suicide attempt may involve increased sensitivity in terms of both the employee and their employer or manager.
  • There are steps that employers can take to support staff that have lost a loved one or colleague to suicide.
  • Developing a postvention strategy can prepare an organisation so that it is equipped to provide effective support to employees following a suicide.

Suicide can have a far-reaching impact: on the family of an individual who has taken their own life, on friends, colleagues, and beyond. The death of an employee by suicide can affect those who worked with the individual directly, as well as the business and workforce more widely. But there are steps that employers can take to support staff that have lost a loved one or colleague, and to ensure that employees experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviours feel able to access the help they need.

Supporting an employee back to work after a suicide attempt may involve increased sensitivity in terms of both the employee and their employer or manager, says Brendan Street, professional head, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) at healthcare and emotional wellbeing provider Nuffield Health. An employee may choose not to disclose a suicide attempt, but it is important that line managers are trained on how to talk to employees about mental health and sensitive issues such as suicidal thoughts. Managers can also turn to the EAP for support if they have any concerns or require guidance, says Beate O’Neil, head of wellbeing at Punter Southall Health and Protection.

Where an employee does choose to share the reason for their absence with colleagues, an awareness of the complex causes of suicide and the ability to have open and informed discussions about mental health can help to erode any associated stigma. “[Employees] need to be encouraged to be as natural as possible and to offer their help,” says Dr Wolfgang Seidl, workplace health consulting leader, UK and Europe at Mercer Marsh Benefits. “Because one thing that in suicide prevention lay people often misconstrue is that if [they] ask someone about depression or suicidal ideation then [they] push them into suicide, which literature is very clear is not the case.”

An employee should only return to work once they have been assessed by occupational health or a healthcare professional, and a tailored return-to-work plan should be developed to ensure the employee is supported back into the workplace. This might involve certain adjustments to work load or working patterns, such as a phased return or reduced hours, and access to support services where appropriate. “One should never assume that it’s the same for everybody, it has to be an individual plan,” says Seidl.

Support after a loss
In the sad situation where an employee takes their own life, extra support may be required for colleagues. This could include occupational health support, or critical incident management, available through some EAPs, which provides on-site counselling for groups and individuals following a trauma.

However, not everyone will react to loss in the same way. Eugene Farrell, head of trauma support services at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “A counsellor might be useful for some people to talk to, but others may not be interested in that and prefer talking to their colleagues.”

Ensuring that employees are aware of the various support services available to them, while allowing them the time and flexibility to process the situation can help employees to react in a way that is comfortable for them.

Staff may also require support beyond the immediate aftermath of a death by suicide. “The organisation has to be sensitive to the anniversary, and that’s maybe a time for softly reminding [employees] that there is support available,” says Farrell.

Employers should ensure that employees continue to be signposted to support where needed. Vanessa Sallows, benefits and governance director at Legal and General Group Protection, says: “Some people won’t want to talk about it and others will do, so it’s making sure that [employers] are aware of any signs that if people are bottling it up it isn’t affecting them.”

Sense of guilt
Suicides can sometimes lead to a sense of guilt because people may speculate about whether they could have done anything to help prevent the death. Axa’s Farrell says: “That’s particularly difficult for line managers who might feel that they had a responsibility to see [signs of suicidal behaviour] or that they should have referred them to occupational health or the EAP, or done more. They could be living with that for a long time and we don’t want that to happen.”

Access to counselling services can help staff to address these feelings.

These wellbeing benefits can also provide assistance to an employee that has lost a loved one to suicide, and employers can signpost staff to their GP or dedicated bereavement charities. Access to bereavement counselling and probate support may also be available through group life insurance schemes. Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance, says: “It’s sometimes more appropriate to leave a period of normalisation where life has returned to normal without the person who has [died by] suicide, so counselling can sometimes work best six to 12 months after the event rather than six to 12 hours or days after the event.”

Again, it is important to bear in mind that there is no standard timeline or way in which people grieve. “People mourn in different ways and generally people are quite vulnerable in dealing with loss,” says David Price, managing director at Health Assured. “It’s [about] acknowledging the loss, supporting them, and if [the employer] can communicate throughout the year that employee wellbeing and the welfare of employees is important it can negate any stigma around it.”

A postvention strategy
In addition to emotional support, there are also practical issues to consider when employees lose a loved one or colleague to suicide, such as communications and time off for funerals. Establishing a postvention plan can ensure that organisations are positioned to respond in a timely and sensitive manner to a suicide, with procedures that include both emotional and practical matters within their scope.

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A postvention committee that brings together key stakeholders across the business and takes into account relevant health and wellbeing providers can be formed to develop an appropriate postvention plan. “We would urge every employer to put suicide prevention and suicide postvention protocols in place,” says Louise Aston, wellbeing at work director at Business in the Community (BITC). “It’s about being a responsible employer, it’s about risk mitigation, and there’s also a really strong business and moral case for taking prevention and postvention planning into account. It’s not as simple as producing some policies, it’s more complicated than that.”

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted for free at any time on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.org.