As I See It: No, It’s Not Painless
March 19, 2012 Victor Rozek
In the hierarchy of bad work days, having a colleague hurl herself out of a fourth story window ranks right up there near the top. Though thankfully rare, workplace suicide is on the rise, a reflection of mounting desperation as, for many, economic options run out. A single telecommunications company in France (the former employer of the fourth floor flyer) had a horrific, mind-boggling string of 23 employee suicides. The company had been busy restructuring–a pallid euphemism for discarding workers–and apparently forgot it was altering lives as well as spreadsheets.
Back home, where compassion and corporation have become all but mutually exclusive, there were 251 reported workplace suicides in 2008, a 28 percent increase over the prior year, according to the Department of Labor. Judging by U.S. standards, the French woman was something of an anomaly. As reported by Toni Bowers of Tech Republic, “94 percent [of workplace suicides] were committed by men.” The highest at-risk group were workers 45 to 54 years of age who accounted for 36 percent of self-inflicted deaths. By occupation, managers shook off the corporate coil more frequently than any other group. A good reason to remember to be kind to your manager.
The effects on survivors of a self-inflicted death can be profound and long-lasting, even if the person is only a colleague or casual acquaintance. Death, under the best of circumstances, is difficult, but its sudden, startling, willful imposition derails any hope of normalcy. Our fellow employees may not be our closest friends, but there is a sense of being tethered to the same plow, pulling in the same direction. When a teammate goes down by his own hand, a myriad of uncomfortable questions arise about our own mortality, our darker impulses, and our behavior toward the deceased. At the very least, a suicide leaves behind a hellish mess to clean up–both tangibly and psychologically–as is often its intent.
But for a culture obsessed with violence, we have a peculiar discomfort with death. Death is treated like a toilet seat in a cheap motel: sanitized for your protection. The elderly are warehoused and whisked away, like dirty breakfast dishes, right after their last exhale. Increasingly, wars are fought from hygienic distances, and the dead arrive home in secret anonymity. We are eager to see the latest technology, but not the people it annihilates.
Nor do we know how to grieve. There is simply no time for it. I recall that when my father died, my employer gave me three days bereavement leave. Then, I was expected to return to work, bright eyed and full of enthusiasm, having put the event behind me. With the exception of certain religious traditions, we have no customs, no ceremonies, no communal support for grieving. Grief is expected to be a quiet, individual matter. A passing event, rather than a process. We’re expected to manage our grief so as not to cause discomfort to others. But often survivors need help. Even if they’ve had no direct contact with the person who committed suicide, there is a possibility that the event will trigger dormant feelings from a suicide in their past.
Michael is a close friend of mine who manages a large company that recently dealt with these issues. A long-time employee with a history of battling depression didn’t return from lunch. At day’s end, a co-worker found him in his car, which was parked in the back lot, far enough to be out of hearing range, yet close enough to be visible to his friends. He died of a single gunshot to the head.
Michael said nothing could have prepared him for the aftermath. First, there was the police investigation and the media circus to contend with. The family needed to be notified, and the company provided a liaison to help with the media intrusion, paperwork, insurance, accrued benefits, and personal effects.
A memorial service was organized and employees were encouraged to speak and share stories. Grief counselors were brought in and remained available for some time, so that anyone with lingering issues could find support. Several employees planted a small flower garden to commemorate the co-worker. Michael closely managed the entire process while dealing with his own emotional response. Even months after the suicide, a dull patina of distress blanketed the office, he said.
As much as he wanted to protect his employees, restore a semblance of normalcy, and move past the event, the healing process proceeded at its own inextricable pace. Grief, a counselor told him, was like an apple. If you tried to swallow it whole, it would stick in your throat. You had to digest it in bites. And if you’re the friend of a grieving person, don’t try to take the apple from them. It is theirs.
In the aftermath, Michael provided training for his staff to help them identify and support employees experiencing distress. There are, of course, limits to what can be done in the workplace, but a simple rule of thumb is to take all talk of suicide seriously and then to ACT: Acknowledge, Care, and get Treatment. Seventy percent of the people who take their own lives tip their hand before committing the act. In response, experts recommend acknowledging the truth of the person’s experience, expressing concern for their welfare, and asking questions about their intent. Then get professional help.
There are times when, in Bill Moyers’ words “the bleak realities of powerlessness that shape the lives of ordinary people,” become overwhelming. The response to repeated hardship, disappointment, and lack of hope is unpredictable. Sometimes the loss of a job and the accompanying loss of security and identity becomes unbearable. After decades of service, people who lose their jobs may feel cast aside, worthless. For men especially, the ability to support a family is central not only to their identity, but their purpose. Add to that the demons created by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it’s no surprise that the soul can enter a state of despair from which it may not emerge.
Actor Peter Greene noted, “As anyone who has been close to someone that has committed suicide knows, there is no other pain like that felt after the incident.” But Michael was surprised by how long the feelings linger. They came in waves, he said. One moment he was riding the crest, out-focused and able to concentrate; the next he was in a trough of sadness, or anger, or confusion. “Suicides are both victims and perpetrators,” he said. “They may think they’re ending their pain, but in reality they pass it on to those they leave behind.”
The irreverent Bill Maher observed that “suicide is man’s way of telling God, ‘You can’t fire me, I quit!'” But the French woman was not being fired by God. For very human reasons, the greater of two terrors became living. Perhaps, in those desperate moments, the best any of us can do is heed John Irving’s advice: “Keep passing the open windows.”
Author’s Note: I changed the name of the manager and the details of the suicide in order to protect the privacy of people who have endured enough disruption. Personally, during my lifetime I have indirectly been affected by three suicides. They still haunt me.