How to Help an Employee Who May Be Suicidal

Posted on May 4, 2016 by Shawn Friday, MEd, LPC, CEAP

Suicide is Increasing:

How you can help as an employee, supervisor or manager

It may be a sign of our current times, but the sad fact is suicide is increasing within all sectors of our population. The warning signs can be identified and there are steps you can take to help your fellow team members in need.

Manager supporting employee thinking of suicide.

How do I know if someone is suicidal or at risk in the workplace? Some signs are clear and may indicate a need for immediate action. These include:

  • Statements of intent to die or wanting to die
  • Statements of hopelessness or saying there is no reason to live
  • Giving away their possessions
  • Buying or borrowing a gun or seeking other lethal means to suicide such as pills

Other signs of possible risk include:

  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Changes in hygiene, interactions with others, mood, sleep
  • Anxiety, depression, mood swings, anger, talk of pain, withdrawal/isolation.

How do I respond to someone who may be at risk

Your response is crucial and may save a life. Don’t wait to be certain the threat is real; it is important to have a discussion with the employee about your concerns, being specific and clear in what you are seeing and witnessing. With any of the signs mentioned above indicating immediate action, speak with them right away and work to make a safety plan where they won’t be left alone. In many of these situations, other employees have noticed signs or reported hearing concerning comments and they report it to the manager. When discussing your concerns be sure to:

  1. Have the conversation in a private place where you will not be interrupted.
  2. Bring up the concerns directly (from what you have witnessed or from what was reported to you).
  3. Offer your support and the support of the organization to assist in accessing help as needed. Your conversation could start like this:“Steven, I was informed you made statements about not being around anymore while you were with co-workers. This is very concerning for your co-workers and for me, and we want to be sure you are okay. What’s going on?” or “We want to support you in getting what you need. Can we talk about what that might be?”
  4. Ask if the employee has had thoughts or intentions of killing themselves. Some people are concerned this may “plant the seed” of suicide if the person has not been considering it. This is a common fear and deterrent for asking difficult questions, however the reality is the effect of asking about it will probably be a relief for those at risk. It gives the employee permission to then talk about the issue and ask for and get help. Are you thinking about killing or hurting yourself?” If the answer is “no”, seek clarification of what was said and why. If the answer is vague or “not really”, this must be taken as a “yes” until you are able to seek further clarification on what they mean.
  5. Listen to their concerns without giving advice, minimizing their concerns, or trying to "make them feel better." This is the most valuable thing you can do. MakeItOk provides a "Tips for Talking" guide which may be helpful in your conversation. These tips help to break the silence and invites the person to discuss what they are going through. Here are some recommendations about what to say.

Do say…

  • “It sounds like it has been pretty rough for you lately”
  • “I’m sorry to hear about your troubles, would you like to talk about it?”
  • “Thanks for sharing.”
  • “Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that. It must be tough.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
  • “I’m here for you when you need me.”

Don’t say…

  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Just deal with it.”
  • “Snap out of it.”
  • “Everyone feels that way sometimes.”
  • “You may have brought this on yourself.”
  • “We’ve all been there.”
  • “You’ve got to pull yourself together.”
  • “Maybe try thinking happier thoughts.”
  • “Oh man, that sucks.”

Get the employee to agree to get help and offer to contact VITAL WorkLife with the employee to speak with a consultant or arrange an appointment. "We can call now to see about getting help. I can call and then leave the room if you want.” Try to connect with the counselor after the conversation with the employee to see about next steps. The counselor can discuss necessary steps according to what permission was given and confidentiality rules (if imminent risk is determined, the counselor may reveal information even if the client has not given permission). If unable to do this, ask the employee what was decided from the phone call.

What If They Refuse to Get Help?

  • If there seems to be risk of imminent harm, call 911.
  • Consider contacting the employee’s listed emergency contact to notify them of your concerns and to give them opportunity to assist.
  • If you become aware of possible suicidal risk while the employee is at home or otherwise not at the worksite, call or visit them, notify an emergency contact and follow the above steps. Don’t wait.
  • Consult with your HR department and call us for direction and support as needed.


Tyler, Mary. A Manager's Handbook: Handling Traumatic Events. Washington, DC (1900 E St., NW, Washington 20415-0001): U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Human Resources Systems Service, Office of Employee Relations and Workforce Performance, 1997. Print.

The Role of Managers in Preventing Suicide in the Workplace. Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2013. Web.

We Can Help.

If you are looking for further guidance for assisting a potentially suicidal team member in the workplace, or even a family setting, VITAL WorkLife consultants are available anytime, day or night, to talk with you. Whether you are facing challenges or your workforce is, VITAL WorkLife can help.

Call VITAL WorkLife For The Support You Need.

  • EAP members call 800.383.1908 or access resources through your VITAL WorkLife App
  • Physician Well Being Resources members call 877.731.3949 or access resources through your VITAL WorkLife App

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