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Can Your Workplace Culture Help Prevent Suicide?

Dec 04, 2020

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study, more than 2,800 suicides occurred in theBusinesswoman talking on the phone and taking notes workplace from 2007 to 2017. The CDC reports that a suicide occurred every 11 minutes in the U.S. in 2018, accounting for 48,000 deaths.

Stressors in and out of the workplace can lead to individuals to commit suicide. What steps can your organization take to develop a culture that supports those struggling with these stressors and provides them helpful resources.

“When we improve workplace culture, the workplace itself can serve as a protective factor against suicide,” says Maggie Mortali, senior program director at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

Taking these five steps can help an organization create a more open and supportive workplace culture in which workers are comfortable talking about challenges they are facing and seeking help.

1. Break Through Barriers

Many people struggle to talk about feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide. These barriers may be administrative, cultural or personal.

“When leadership is proactive about creating a culture that’s focused on well-being and addressing job strain and other factors that can contribute to a toxic work environment, that really helps in changing culture,” Mortali says.

She adds that if the culture promotes health, well-being and resources, people will have an easier time reaching out. Conversely, if your organization has a “pull up your bootstraps and get through it” culture, employees may view asking for help as a sign of weakness.

Organizational policies also can cause employees to perceive that mental health disclosures impede job advancement or career development. Often, this is because mental healthcare options and employee assistance programs (EAPs) are not promoted in the same way as medical health benefits.

That’s why it’s important to create greater awareness of these resources, Mortali explains.

“Promoting what services are available to increase awareness and understanding of mental health services is what we call an upstream approach. We’re promoting protective factors and a culture of well-being and respect and help-seeking so that when someone is in distress or is thinking about suicide they’re not having to navigate through the help-seeking process.”  

2. Embrace the Power of Peers

When workers are aware of the resources available, they are more likely to use those resources and promote their positive impact. Mortali encourages employers to share the stories of individuals who have benefited from these programs as an example to their co-workers.

“When someone who is depressed or struggling with anxiety reaches out to an EAP, they then become a resource for others,” she says. “This helps break through the stigma and remove barriers, which in turn helps build a more open and supportive culture.”

Storytelling is a powerful communication tool, Mortali explains. The stories can provide powerful examples of how an EAP or benefit program can help an individual overcome difficult times. 

“When stories are integrated into the help-seeking process, people not only know where to go for help, but they're also learning about their own mental health, what suicide risk may look like, and how and why to get help,” Mortali explains.

3. Give a “Checkup From the Neck Up”

Workers often receive an annual physical examination as part of workplace wellness programs. One way to improve your workplace culture is to integrate mental health screening as part of this annual checkup to assess employees’ overall mental well-being. 

“Screening programs are a great way to intervene or identify people who may be in distress before it becomes a crisis,” Mortali says. “Offering a universal screening is a more targeted approach that can be beneficial as a way to engage people into care.”

Some organizations may incorporate mental health screening into annual exams by including questions related to mental health conditions like depression. Informal measures could include online screening where workers complete a questionnaire, receive results and are encouraged to initiate a conversation with their doctor or a mental health professional.

4. Institute a Buddy System

Another way to break down barriers to seeking help is to take steps to strengthen the bonds between co-workers. For example, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, AFSP instituted a “buddy system” so that paired employees periodically checked in and offered support.

“The buddy system enhances the sense of community,” Mortali explains. “When we’re intentional about checking in or reaching out to other people, it can strengthen social connectedness.”

Mortali explains that a “buddy system” can be formal or informal, depending on the size of your organization. Larger organizations may institute a peer support program in which employees volunteer to be a resource for others, while smaller organization might focus on solidifying connections between individuals who already are on good terms.

5. Recognize the Symptoms of Struggle

Managers, supervisors and workers need to recognize the signs and symptoms that an individual may be struggling with mental health issues.

Mortali says observable suicide warning signs are grouped into three main categories:

  1. Talk. People with suicidal thoughts often talk about ending their lives, or share feelings of being overwhelmed or trapped.
  2. Mood. People with suicidal thoughts often feel down, depressed or angry or exhibit an agitated or irritable mood.
  3. Behavior. Suicide risk can be linked to an increased use of alcohol or drugs, reckless behavior or acting out.

While on its own, one of these symptoms may not be a warning sign of an imminent suicide, a combination of these and/or significant changes in a co-worker's behavior can be cause for concern, Mortali says.

“Think about major changes in the way a person is talking, behaving and acting,” she says. “This serves as an opportunity to reach out and make yourself available to those that you may be concerned about.”

Listen to our podcast episode featuring Maggie Mortali, senior program director, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, to learn more about creating a supportive organizational culture.

Need Help or Know Someone Who Does?

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Both are free and confidential.

What Is Total Worker Health®?

Taking a Total Worker Health® approach can help your organization create and sustain a culture that supports overall worker well-being.

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