10 Workplace Action Steps for Dealing with the Aftermath of a Suicide

By |2019-07-02T18:50:49+00:00May 31st, 2019|0 Comments

(Adapted from A Manager’s Guide to Suicide Postvention in the Workplace: 10 Action Steps for Dealing with the Aftermath of a Suicide)

Death powerfully jars our concept of the way life is supposed to be. That dissonance is multiplied when the death is by suicide. 

Following the tragedy of death by suicide, the workforce will include people whose personal struggles already leave them vulnerable and who now face increased risk for destructive behavior, including suicide. Tragedy can beget additional tragedies. Sometimes irrational blaming behavior includes violence. Sometimes suicide contagion or “Copycat Suicides” occur. How leaders respond (postvention) after death by suicide is critical to stopping that negative momentum. 

Postvention can be prevention

Defined by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center as “The provision of crisis intervention and other support after a suicide has occurred to address and alleviate possible effects of suicide”, effective postvention has been found to stabilize community, prevent contagion, and facilitate return to a new normal.

  1. Coordinate: Contain the crisis. 

Like the law enforcement officer on-sight at a traffic accident, postvention aims to prevent one tragedy from leading to another and return normal progression as soon as is safely possible. Visible, strong, compassionate leadership presence can mitigate strong emotional reactions. Panic and rage can be contagious. So is calm.

  1. Notify: Protect and respect the privacy rights of the deceased employee and their loved ones during death notification.
  1. Communicate: Reduce the potential for contagion and destructive rumors. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate meaningful information. Share only what you know for sure. Keep it simple. Make it practical. Focus on solutions to immediate issues. Repeat it. Repeat it again.

  1. Support: Offer practical assistance to the family and those impacted. 

Even normal tasks feel overwhelming at this time. Take care of the details so those most impacted do not have to do so.

  1. Link: Identify and link impacted employees to additional support resources and refer those most affected to professional mental health services.

How to lead effective suicide postvention was likely not part of most business leaders’ education or training. When these tragedies occur, leaders often engage their EAP to deploy Critical Incident Response experts – behavioral health professionals with unique training in response to tragedies. These consultants will:

  • Consult with the organization’s leadership regarding crisis communication strategies that facilitate resilience
  • Draw circles of impact and shape an appropriate response
  • Let people talk if they wish to do so
  • Identify normal reactions to an abnormal event so that people don’t panic regarding their own reactions
  • Build group support
  • Outline self-help recovery strategies
  • Brainstorm solutions to overcome immediate return-to-function and return-to-life obstacles
  • Assess and triage movement toward either immediate business-as-usual functioning or additional care. Following death by suicide, they will be especially attuned to assess others for self-harm risk.
  1. Comfort: Support, comfort, and promote healthy grieving of the employees who have been impacted by the loss. 

Critical Incident Response consultants will guide, coach, and script leaders regarding compassionate messaging. Leaders must “give permission” for help-seeking behavior.

  1. Restore: Restore equilibrium and optimal functioning in the workplace. 

Sensitively resume a familiar schedule. People do best when their natural rhythms kick back in. Routine. No surprises. One foot in front of the other just like yesterday. Most people recover best and are emotionally safest when in a familiar setting, surrounded by supportive colleagues, and focused upon well-known functions. 

Facilitate successful completion of familiar tasks. Employees may not be fully capable of complex tasks but benefit from adapted responsibilities. Doing something tangible reduces that sense of powerlessness and helps people focus on what they can do, rather than panic about what they cannot. The structure of doing what one knows how to do builds momentum toward finding a “new normal”.

  1. Lead: Build and sustain trust and confidence in organizational leadership.

The team will never forget the leader’s response. Neither will the leader. Effective provision of both guidance and support will lead to the team feeling cared for in the workplace and result in loyalty and faith in their leadership’s abilities.  People will go through the crisis with or without leadership. Lead them.

  1. Honor: Prepare for anniversary reactions and other milestone dates. 

Intentionally mark these dates on the calendar and then respectfully acknowledge them in large or small ways. Honor those impacted by the death.

  1. Sustain: Transition postvention to suicide prevention.

All involved stakeholders will now own the fact that “it can happen here.” Use that momentum to keep others safer. Following death by suicide leaders all become “first responders.” Rather than being overwhelmed by the first tragedy, they can prevent others.

To learn more about postvention, check out Responding to Grief, Trauma, and Distress After a Suicide: U.S. National Guidelines. Developed by the Action Alliance’s Survivors of Suicide Loss Task Force, this report is the first-ever comprehensive, strategic document outlining how communities can effectively respond to the devastating impact of suicide loss and paves the way for decisive advances in postvention services.  

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Human Concerns

About the Author:

Bob VandePol serves as Director of Pine Rest Employee Assistance Program where he leverages behavioral health expertise to enhance the health and productivity of businesses. He previously served as President of Crisis Care Network, helping to lead it from a startup to the world’s largest provider of Critical Incident Response services to the workplace. He managed CCN’s Command Center in Manhattan following the 2001 terrorist attacks and led teams in response to many of our nations largest tragedies.

Contact: [email protected] and can be followed on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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