Bernie Wong | Senior Associate, Mind Share Partners
James had been working in the financial industry for decades at prominent, reputable banks. He was friendly, outgoing, magnanimous and generous. The first time we met, he invited me to have lunch near his hometown. James and I worked together for a year before he left in pursuit of other ventures in 2015.
In the winter of 2016, I reached out to James, sending a bottle of wine and best wishes for the New Year. A few weeks later, he hadn’t responded, which wasn’t typical of him. Then, I heard from a colleague that James had died by suicide that holiday season.
The news of James’s death spread. My colleagues and I learned from his brother that James had been managing depression for decades. We would never have known given how highly competent and engaged he was. But our industry is high-stress and relatively unforgiving—people would never share if things weren’t going well.
In the weeks following James’ suicide, my colleagues’ responses varied: from seeing his depression as a weakness, to insisting he wasn’t depressed at all, to total avoidance, to sympathy and understanding in recognizing depression as a real issue. Every response, however, happened behind closed doors.
To prevent crises like James’s or those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade this World Suicide Prevention Day (or Suicide Prevention Awareness Day), having a crisis management plan in place is important, but a crisis plan alone is like putting a bandage on a gaping wound. Some estimates say that up to 87% of suicide victims had been previously diagnosed with a mental health condition. However, it takes 10 years on average from when a person first experiences symptoms of a mental health condition to when they seek care—a 10-year window for prevention. What’s more, research shows that employees are afraid to talk about mental health at work—especially with senior leaders and HR.
To truly prevent suicide, workplaces need to understand their impact on mental health and address both stigma and preventative approaches before they reach crisis territory.
Only Talking About Mental Health In The Context Of Suicide Is Misleading And Ultimately Ineffective
When workplaces only talk about mental health in the context of suicide, they further stigmatize mental health by reinforcing an association between mental health challenges and suicide. In reality, up to 80% of people can live symptom-free with the right support and treatment, and new research shows that certain mental health conditions are just as prevalent in high-performers and entrepreneurs—like James.
Instead, mental health is a spectrum that encompasses work stress, burnout, and conditions. Suicide only represents a minority of the most extreme outcomes to severe mental health experiences.
Encouraging Employees To Get Help Is An Empty Gesture Without Culture Change
Time off and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are typical go-to resources for companies’ mental health “strategy.” These are not sufficient for suicide prevention let alone mental health support.
Time off simply sends employees out of the workplace only to return to the same conditions. Research shows that workplace factors including excessive work hours, work-family conflict, low job control and high job demands can cause or trigger not only thoughts of suicide but mental health conditions as well. What’s more, employees are taking less time off, and two thirds say that its benefits last only a few days. And despite 97% of companies having EAPs, utilization rates average as low as 5%.
Instead, one of the greatest challenges is the eight in 10 workers who say stigma prevents them from getting treatment. These resources only work in combination with a proactive and comprehensive approach to eliminating the stigma of mental health at work.
Ultimately, Leaders Are Accountable To Make Comprehensive Change In Workplaces
Suicide prevention in the workplace comes down to culture change. Training managers on how to notice signs of a crisis and expecting them to become mental health experts does not address the prevailing stigma around mental health in workplaces. Without comprehensive culture change around normalizing support and conversations about mental health, crises are inevitably going to happen again. There are a few things leaders can do to start.
Consistently Advocate For Self-Care—And We Don’t Mean Spa Days
Research shows that employees don’t utilize benefits without explicit expressed support for their use. Mental health needs consistent and supportive messaging from leadership. Advocate for disconnecting after work hours, flexible schedules, and taking advantage of health benefits.
Model Healthy Workplace Practices
Managers and leaders must continually model healthy behaviors. Senior leaders dictate their companies’ cultural norms through what they say and do. Some leaders are beginning to speak out in support of mental health, and others like Ryan Bonnici, CMO at software company G2, go further by being open to their employees about their own mental health challenges and therapy appointments.
Create Ongoing Opportunities For Conversation And Community Around Mental Health
Mental health trainings that address stigma and take a culture change approach can spark dialogue and build collective alignment around workplace mental health. A few leading companies have created employee resource groups (ERG) for mental health as well like Johnson & Johnson’s Mental Health Diplomats and Netflix’s Mental Health ERG. Others have trained employees to provide peer support to colleagues like Google’s Blue Dot and Reuter’s Peer Network.
We are catching up to an epidemic that has been left unaddressed for many years, but leaders can choose to take steps to create change for good.
* Note: Identifiable information changed to preserve the anonymity of those in the story.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Bernie is a Senior Associate at Mind Share Partners. He focuses primarily on organization programming, marketing, and design. Prior to Mind Share Partners, Bernie was an Associate at HopeLab, a human-centered design consulting nonprofit, where he developed evidence-based products and solutions to support mental health and wellbeing.
Bernie has also worked in freelance visual design, in education at Stanford as a Head Teaching Assistant, and in editorial work and academic research. Bernie also sits on the board of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA) Foundation, a grassroots philanthropic organization that provides funds and leverages resources to empower Asian/Pacific Islander LGBTQ students, organizations, and communities.
Bernie holds a Master of Health Science in Mental Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a B.A. in Psychology and Sociology from UC Berkeley.