Depression in the Workplace: Employers are not Prepared to Respond

By Noma Bruton posted 09-09-2014 08:09


My manager died by suicide in 1999.  Her death was a life-changing event for me.  It was not, however, my first experience with the subject of suicide in the workplace.

I first found myself talking with a suicidal employee while on vacation with my husband in South Padre Island, Texas. I took a call from an HR coworker, David, a young man with progressive ideas and the energy to make things happen. He had recently been asked to develop and manage the bank's work/life programs. He was enthusiastic about the opportunity. His wife had just given birth to their first child after several years of marriage. David embraced being a role model for men trying to balance the responsibilities of fatherhood with the demands of work.

David and I had developed a great rapport at work. Perhaps it was the fact that we were working closely on the work/life programs or that we were both from Texas. Whatever led to it, I had become something of a confidant to the younger man. I knew that the birth of his son had caused a major lifestyle adjustment for David and his wife. They had been married for several years without children and had grown accustomed to their freedom. They had hobbies, ate out at nice restaurants several nights a week, traveled often and enjoyed a footloose and free lifestyle. The birth of their son dramatically changed things, much more than either of them had expected.

I hadn't realized the extent to which David had grown depressed following his son’s birth until I picked up the phone that day at the beach. David had tracked me down on vacation to talk. I had never heard the tone in his voice. He was distraught. He recognized and acknowledged that he was depressed. His life had been turned upside down by the birth of his child. He confided that he hated his new life. He wanted out.

I suddenly found myself talking with a severely depressed, suicidal young man. He had reached out to me for no other reason than because I was a work friend, someone to whom he felt he could talk. Shocked by how quickly the conversation had escalated from David talking about being “down” to voicing the notion of suicide as the answer, I felt panic. There was no doubt this was a critical situation.   I found myself looking out the glass doors of the condo at my husband lying under a beach umbrella serenely reading a novel while I stood there listening to David openly contemplate suicide.   Nothing in my HR training had prepared me for this.

I was able to talk David into allowing me to create a conference call with one of the bank's EAP (Employee Assistance Program) counselors. David would go that far, but he did not want to speak to the counselor directly. He was locked into the idea that he only wanted to talk to me. The conference call consisted of David talking to me about wanting to kill himself and, in brief spurts, me conferring offline with the counselor about how to handle the situation.

My goal became convincing David to let me transfer him to the EAP counselor. Unlike me, the counselor had been trained in working with those who were depressed and suicidal. I didn’t know the counselor with whom I was conferring, but I remember him as extremely kind and patient as he gently coached me in how to encourage my distraught coworker to speak with him.

The phone conversation between David, the EAP counselor and me went on like this for a very long time, more than an hour. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, David agreed to be transferred to the counselor. I managed to hand David over to this trained professional, but as soon as I hung up the phone, I collapsed sobbing onto the living room sofa. I had never felt such a heavy responsibility for another person. I had felt responsible for preventing David from harming himself, and yet totally untrained in how to handle such a situation.

Fortunately, the story of David and his family had a happy ending: The EAP counselor was successful in helping David through that awful day and David overcame the depression brought on by the changes in his family life.

You might expect, as a result of this situation, HR employees in the bank would have immediately received training in identifying and responding to suicidal tendencies of employees. That was not the case. I was thanked and congratulated for having helped David through a difficult situation, but there was no acknowledgement of the imperative for being prepared for such serious experiences.

Even though I was well aware of the need for this type of training, I did not seek it out on my own either. The only explanation I can come up with today is that I expected my sudden exposure to a suicidal employee to be an isolated event.

Of course, that was a bad assumption. The phone call with David turned out to be only the first of several interactions with suicidal employees over the course of my career.

Anyone can suddenly find themselves in a position to prevent a suicide. Knowing how to identify the signs that someone might be suicidal and what to do can be critically important.  Employers and HR professionals should ensure they are adequately trained and prepared to respond to employees suffering from depression.


Working Minds:  Suicide Prevention in the Workplace

Note:  This article first appeared at Sagacity | HR on July 21, 2014