What Canadian Employers Need to Know About Suicide Prevention

  • Workplace Health & Safety
What Canadian Employers Need to Know About Suicide Prevention
Michelle Ann Zoleta

Michelle Ann Zoleta, Health & Safety Team Manager

(Last updated )

Suicide is among the top ten causes of death in Canada. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 4,000 people die by suicide every year.

The tragic and devastating outcome of mental health issues can affect anyone, regardless of their profession or socioeconomic status. As an employer, you have a unique responsibility to create a supportive work environment that prioritizes the mental health and well-being of your employees.

To prevent suicide in the workplace, it is important to foster a culture of open communication and support, where employees feel comfortable speaking up about their mental health concerns without fear of judgment or reprisal. It is also important to provide access to mental health resources such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) or other resources that provide confidential counselling, support groups, or self-help resources.

What can cause suicidal behaviour in the workplace?

Suicidal behaviour in the workplace can be caused by various factors. One of the most significant factors is workplace stress. Employees who experience excessive workload, long hours, bullying or harassment, and job insecurity can experience overwhelming stress that can contribute to suicidal behaviour. Workplace stress can also stem from poor communication, lack of support, and low morale among colleagues.

Another factor is poor mental health. Employees who suffer from mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder may be at higher risk of suicidal behaviour. These disorders can be caused by personal or professional reasons, including workplace stress and trauma.

Lack of support and resources in the workplace can also contribute to suicidal behaviour. If employees do not have access to mental health resources, such as counselling or therapy, they may feel unsupported and helpless in their situation.

Lastly, a toxic work environment and culture can contribute to suicidal behaviour. A workplace culture that is unsupportive, isolating, and hostile can cause employees to feel demoralized, hopeless, and disconnected from their work and colleagues. This can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

Overall, it’s important for employers to address these factors and create a safe and supportive work environment for their employees. This can include implementing mental health resources, promoting work-life balance, and fostering a positive workplace culture.

What are the signs to watch out for?

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), people at risk of suicide may:

  • show an abrupt change in mood or behaviour
  • exhibit a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, intense anxiety
  • increase substance use
  • withdraw socially and avoid friends, family, and activities that they previously enjoyed
  • neglect their appearance
  • express the wish to die or end their life (for example, “Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t here”)
  • give away cherished possessions or prepare for their death (for example, creating a will)

What preventive steps can employers take to prevent suicide in the workplace?

To prevent suicide in the workplace, there are several preventive measures that you can take as an employer. One way is to offer employee assistance programs or access to human resource departments to help employees access mental health services.

You can also promote mental health by offering paid mental health days, sufficient vacation time, and benefits that acknowledge both physical and mental health services. Suicide prevention awareness and training is also essential, as is fostering a culture where help-seeking is encouraged.

If you are concerned that a co-worker may be suicidal, it’s important to talk to them about it. You can mention that you have noticed changes in their behaviour and that you are concerned about them. It’s also important to ask them directly if they are having thoughts of suicide and if they have a plan to kill themselves.

If they are, it’s important to connect them with resources in your organization, such as human resources, the employee assistance program, or another mental health professional. You can also refer them to resources in your community, such as the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. By taking these preventative measures and knowing how to talk to a co-worker who may be suicidal, employers and employees can work together to create a safe and supportive workplace environment.

Here are some steps you can also take to prevent suicide in the workplace.

Make efforts to destigmatize mental health in the workplace

Mental health is often stigmatized in the workplace, which can prevent employees from seeking help when they need it. Canadian employers can take several steps to destigmatize mental health and create a supportive environment for their employees.

One way is to prioritize mental health in the workplace by promoting open communication and providing access to mental health resources. Employers can offer employee assistance programs, counselling services, and mental health training for managers and employees. They can also create a culture of care and support by encouraging employees to take care of their mental health and providing time off when needed.

Connect employees to mental health resources

It is also important that you raise awareness about mental health by promoting education and training. This can include sharing information about mental health issues and their impacts, as well as ways to access resources and support. Employers can also offer training on how to recognize the signs of mental distress and how to support colleagues who may be struggling.

It is a good practice to offer an employee assistance program. EAPs provide confidential counselling services to employees who may be experiencing personal difficulties (for example, family violence, job stress, substance abuse). This provides an outlet for problems before they become overwhelming.

If you offer an EAP, regularly remind employees about the benefits and how to access it, if needed. Make information about emergency resources like crisis lines, and community resources, available in your workplace. Direct your employees to websites that have mental health resources. OntarioAlberta, and British Columbia each have resources that provide employees with access to free mental health resources, as do most Canadian provinces.

Educate employees about suicide

Education is an essential tool for preventing suicide in the workplace and as an employer, you should take steps to educate employees about suicide and promote awareness of mental health issues. This can include providing information about the warning signs of suicide, ways to support colleagues who may be struggling, and resources for mental health support.

You can also offer training on how to recognize the signs of mental distress and how to respond to a colleague who may be at risk of suicide. Inform employees about risk factors, symptoms of suicidal behaviour, available support and coping strategies to deal with problems.

You can also invite an expert to give a talk on the subject or offer training on suicide prevention, such as ASIST training or Mental Health First Aid. The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has created a National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace which includes guidelines, resources, and tools to assist employers in promoting mental health in the workplace.

Check-in regularly with staff

Regular check-ins with employees can be an effective way for Canadian employers to prevent suicide in the workplace. Employers can encourage managers to check in regularly with their staff and create a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable discussing any concerns they may have. These check-ins can help to identify any potential issues early on and allow for timely intervention if necessary.

Employers can also provide resources for mental health support, such as employee assistance programs, and encourage employees to seek help if they are struggling. By checking in regularly with staff, employers can demonstrate that they care about the well-being of their employees and promote a culture of openness and support. Ultimately, regular check-ins can help to prevent suicide in the workplace and support the mental health and well-being of employees.

Organize weekly or daily catchups with employees, especially if you are working remotely because of the pandemic. Watch for signs of mental health struggle or overwhelming anxiety or stress.

If you are concerned about an employee, ask your HR manager or EAP counsellor how to help them. If an employee opens up to you about a mental illness or suicidal thoughts, get them the help they need. Remember to always maintain confidentiality.

The Centre for Suicide Prevention, Alberta, offers guidance in this video on how to talk to someone struggling with thoughts of suicide. The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Crisis Conversation Guide is also a good resource.

How do I talk to an employee I am worried is suicidal?

Talking to a co-worker who you think may be suicidal can be challenging, but it’s important to take action if you’re concerned about their well-being. Canadian employers can provide guidance on how to approach this situation. One way is to mention that you have noticed changes in their behaviour and that you are concerned about them.

You can ask them directly if they are having thoughts of suicide and if they have a plan to kill themselves. It’s important to listen actively and without judgment and to take any suicidal comments or actions seriously. Employers can also connect them with resources in their organization, such as human resources or the employee assistance program, or resources in their community, such as the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

By taking these steps, Canadian employers can help to prevent suicide in the workplace and create a supportive environment for their employees. For example, employers can use a statement such as “Hey, you seem to be a bit overwhelmed with all the work you’ve been getting lately. I notice you are a bit more distracted than usual and I’m a bit worried about you. Are you okay?” to start the conversation.

Prevent workplace bullying and harassment

You must put clear policies in place to prevent bullying in the workplace. Bullying in the workplace can lead to or worsen mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

For individuals already experiencing suicidal risk factors (mental illness, prior suicide attempts, substance abuse, domestic violence, bereavement, social isolation), workplace bullying may put them at a greater risk of suicide.

Create a mental health policy for your workplace

Creating a mental health policy can be an effective way for Canadian employers to prevent suicide in the workplace. A mental health policy can outline the steps that the organization will take to support the mental health and well-being of its employees, including the prevention of suicide.

The policy can include measures such as providing mental health resources, promoting mental health awareness, and training managers and employees on how to recognize the warning signs of suicide and how to respond to a colleague who may be at risk. The policy can also include guidelines for addressing any concerns related to mental health or suicide in the workplace, including confidentiality and privacy considerations.

By creating a mental health policy, employers can demonstrate their commitment to supporting the mental health of their employees and promoting a safe and healthy workplace environment. A comprehensive mental health policy can help to prevent suicide in the workplace and ensure that employees have access to the resources and support they need to maintain their mental health and well-being. Ensure that the policy is included in your health and safety manual and employee handbook and shared with your staff.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 9-1-1. If you are experiencing distress, please contact Crisis Services Canada. You can call their toll-free phone service at 1-833-456-4566 (24×7) or text 45645 (4 p.m. to midnight ET).

Do you need help creating a mental health policy?

Our experts can help you develop company policies as well as with any other HR, health and safety, or employment advice you may need. See how we have helped other small and medium businesses get their business compliant with provincial legislation.

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