My Uncle passed a few months ago. It came as a shock. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent an operation to remove a section of his lung. He never recovered. It was (and still is) a sad time for his family, and his many, many friends. He was a prominent and hard working member of his local church and Lions charity. He had not long sold his business and was looking forward to enjoying the retirement he and my Aunt had worked so hard for.
Nothing prepares you for the loss of a loved one, even if you knew that they weren’t long for this world, or that death was a blessing given the suffering they endured. The grief we feel after someone dies is a normal part of life. It’s difficult to escape. Grief will be felt to some degree, regardless of how close or not you are. But those who have passed aren’t dead to us; they live on in our thoughts and memories. We talk about their life, the person they were, and the joy and sadness they brought. It helps us to heal.
It is something I’m doing right now – recalling times I spent with my Uncle, and the conversations we had. There is one conversation in particular I would like to share with you. It was an important conversation because it became a defining moment in the development of one of STORM’s training packages – Postvention in the workplace.
I had spent a few days looking after my Aunt and Uncle’s three cats whilst they went on a short break. On their return, we sat in the kitchen having a cup of tea and a chat. I was updating my Uncle on STORM’s progress. I had recently returned from Australia having delivered our Suicide Prevention and new Postvention for Schools train-the-trainer programme to headspace staff. headspace (the National Youth Mental Health Foundation) had commissioned STORM training for its Schools support programme. I was explaining how the new Postvention for Schools package had been received well, and I was planning on asking people I knew in business if they thought a Postvention package for the workplace would be something of benefit to them – a bit of market research, as it were.
Out of the blue he asked: “How do you support your staff after a colleague commits suicide?”
I forgave him his choice of words. We are a long way from changing the language to replace or omit the word ‘commit’.
It took me by surprise. He was the founder and Managing Director of an engineering company for over 40 years. I never thought that he would be able to help with my market research, just how to do business. He continued:
“Since I started the business I’ve had two employees commit suicide. Both were great workers, and you wouldn’t have known anything was wrong. It happened years ago, but it still puzzles me even now why they did it. I had a relative who committed suicide, but it didn’t affect me in the same way.”
It was obvious that his workforce was affected by the news of both colleague’s suicides, and no doubt it effected performance for a while. But his recounting the period after each suicide centred on his own thoughts and feelings. Clearly, suicide affects everyone in the workplace. He interacted with those employees almost daily for many years, and so it is of no surprise that the impact of their deaths was far greater than the relative he hardly knew.
The sad thing about this is, that his recollections of each employee were hindered by the nature of their death, and not on the memories of the relationship he had with them, or of particular events. All he could remember of them was that they were “Both great workers…” His thoughts were focused on the question “why?”
This is not uncommon. Suicide is difficult to understand. Without understanding, we can’t progress beyond the ‘why’ stage of grief. We will never know ‘why’ exactly – and that’s OK. What is important to understand is that a person’s suicide was as a result of extreme distress and probably a mental illness.
I have my Uncle to thank for confirming my thoughts; that suicide Postvention, and indeed, Suicide Prevention in the workplace is needed. It is needed because, since that conversation, I have listened to business owners, leaders and HR staff recount experiences of staff (and themselves) struggle with the loss of a colleague, a customer or an associate to suicide. There is evidence to say that mental health issues impact negatively on economic costs, absenteeism and presenteeism. Evidently, the affects and effects of suicide last for many years.
As with my Uncle, each person I have spoken to asks the same question:
“How do you support your staff after a colleague dies by suicide?”
Training and education is important. There is no other way around it. Educate staff to understand distress and suicide, and train key staff with responsibility for mental health & wellbeing to respond appropriately. Now, I appreciate that businesses find it difficult to invest in staff training in this area, especially if they don’t see a direct economic return. However, the tide is turning, and it has been helped by the introduction of mental health & wellbeing legislation. Businesses are beginning to acknowledge the problem, and that is why I have been asked this question. But, I think it is more than that. I think we are genuinely on a more enlightened road. Rather than avoidance, there is a real empathy and a willingness to help our employees and colleagues. Whilst this is encouraging, we have a long road to travel before we are truly able to claim that we care about mental health & wellbeing. There is still the problem of stigma associated with mental health and suicide.
We here at STORM see that preventing suicide shouldn’t start with learning how to identify the signs; it should start with helping ourselves recognise and deal with distress early – before suicide becomes an option. However, our culture still views distress as a weakness, and something to hide. The reality is that by hiding it, we are less likely to seek help and more likely to become seriously mentally ill and to think about suicide. This is why we have created the #HeyAreYouOK? campaign: To help challenge stigma and to change how we view and deal with distress.
From the moment my Uncle asked that question, I have been working towards answering it. At the time I answered in simple terms:
“Staff need to have Suicide Prevention education and training. And now I see Postvention equally as important”.
It became clear that it wasn’t that simple after all. Companies need to see how this sort of education and training fits into their normal work of ‘doing business’. Not only that, they need to see how it fits with mental health & wellbeing.
Now, my answer to the question: “how do you support your staff after a colleague dies by suicide?” Would be:
“Companies need to develop a suicide prevention and postvention strategy that has emotional wellbeing at its core. The strategy should include education for all its workforce and skills training for key personnel.”
In loving memory of Richard Graham Eardley, RIP
#HeyAreYouOK? A simple question can make all the difference
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