As a consultant to Human Resources, managers and line supervisors, it is not unusual for me to get a phone call from someone saying she has an employee who may be suicidal. Although this is not an unusual call for me to receive, I realize that most managers do not go to work expecting they will have an employee who is threatening to harm him or herself. The managers are scared, concerned, and aren’t sure what to do. Many organizations do a great job at promoting suicide awareness – including signs that someone may be suicidal – but what do you do when you are faced with an employee making either passive or specific threats?
In some ways, specific threats are “easier” to address. If someone says she plans on driving her car off the road on the way home, she has a plan (driving her car off the road) and intent (on the way home). The more specific a person is about his or her plan, the more at risk he or she is.
As a consultant, my recommendation is to call 911 and have the police or ambulance come to the workplace to further assess and possibly transport the employee to the local emergency room or mental health hospital. For a manager, this is a very scary prospect and many things may go through his mind, “What will the employee think?”, “How will he react?”, “What if he isn’t serious?”, “What if his colleagues see him ‘taken away’?” All those are very valid questions and concerns. My response is almost always the same, “But what if he does mean it?” Any time a threat is made, the assumption from the manager must be that he or she is serious and acted on as such. An employee’s safety (and possibly the safety of others) must take priority. Although an employee may feel angry in the moment, I’ve seen more than one situation where the employee came back and thanked the manager for saving his life.
Sometimes the more difficult situations are the “passive” or vague comments. Comments such as, “I wish I wouldn’t wake up in the morning” or “I don’t think I can go on anymore”. What do comments like these mean? What does a manager do in these types of situations?
When managers call me to consult after a comment similar to these, my recommendation is to get more information. The manager will need to go back to the employee to ask more questions. This can be a scary step. Often the concern I hear is, “What if he isn’t suicidal? Will my questions plant the thought in his head?” The answer is no, if someone is not already having thoughts about self-harm, asking the question isn’t going to plant that seed.
If the employee denies thoughts of self-harm, asking a clarifying question is the next step, “What did you mean by the comment?” Often times the response to this question is an explanation of how overwhelmed the person is feeling, that she doesn’t see an end to the problem(s) she is experiencing. This is an ideal time for the manager to connect her to the EAP.
The manager does not need to “diagnose” the problem or find solutions for the employee. The manager can offer to get the EAP on the line for the employee and give her a private time to talk. This may give the manager the peace of mind that the employee is actually talking with a professional rather than “trusting” she will make the call herself. The manager should also consult with HR at this time to ensure that all company policies are being followed.
Having an employee imply or directly threaten self-harm is a scary experience. However, managers with an EAP (particularly one that is 24/7) are not alone. A simple phone call to their EAP will provide them the support and guidance they need — for themselves as well as their employees.
Christine M., APSW, CEAP, joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor and became a Consultation Specialist before being promoted to Manager of the Consultation Team. Christine has a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a bachelor’s in Child Development and Family Life from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Additionally, she is a certified wellness coach and leads the Online Leader Coaching Team.