A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

The Importance of Storytelling in Messaging Suicide Prevention in the Workplace

The following article was authored by Mandi Kime of Construction Executive:

Just the mere mention of suicide can make people uncomfortable. Now imagine trying to have that uncomfortable conversation with coworkers. But the reality is that ignoring this topic will not make it go away. Creating a culture that supports your workers is vital to organizational success. Frankly speaking, no organization will run without its people.

Suicide rates were on the rise, even before the gigantic curveball named COVID-19 came and hit every workplace, neighborhood and family in the world. But one thing is certain, everyone has been hit differently, and everyone started in a different place mentally, emotionally, and physically before COVID-19 became a nebulous force of change, confusion and chaos.

In the workplace, there is an obligation to share relevant health and safety information that impacts the lives and livelihoods of employees. What topic is more important than that of mental health (for coping in uncertain times) and suicide prevention? In many industries, more workers are lost to suicide each year than are lost to on the job accidents or exposures.

According to the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, “People who have direct experience with suicide have an important role to play in suicide prevention. These individuals—including suicide attempt survivors, others who have experienced a suicidal crisis and those who have lost a loved one to suicide—can be powerful agents for challenging prejudice and generating hope for people at risk. (National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, n.d.)” With this understanding of storytelling as a powerful tool and platform for developing a workplace mental health and suicide prevention platform, it is important to realize far more people than expected have experience of some sort with suicide and mental illness.

Think of a time when you learned something new in school or in life. Chances are it was because of the story or lesson format of the person or situation you learned it from. But we can all similarly recall times in a class environment where the delivery of the learning materials made us drift off into boredom or slumber. What is the primary difference between these two approaches? Passion and authenticity. That is where a storytelling approach no longer makes an audience feel lectured to but engaged instead. And once a person is engaged, and understands the passion behind someone’s story, that person feels compelled to learn more—or even take action.

The power of storytelling in a workplace is that it shows passion and authenticity that is missed if someone is just reading a narrative or sharing data. So, how can business leaders engage this storytelling magic for their workplaces? For starters, they should find a human connection to the subject matter. They may need to ask themselves, “why is this topic important to me?” to understand and appreciate why it should or would be important to others.

Next, is this connection something leaders can speak about with others? If they aren’t ready or comfortable sharing their story, is there a part of it they can share comfortably? Passion and experience are valuable to prevention. And the story could be the piece of hope another person is looking for, just because the leader is showing others they are not alone.
The truth is, with mental health and suicide prevention bold leadership is needed, in addition to empathy and vulnerability to connect with people. Without those attributes, a topic as uncomfortable as suicide is easily ignored and the stigma grows. Bold leadership is the willingness to talk openly about mental health and suicide to reduce stigma, speak with people one on one, have tough conversations with people who are not creating the caring environment necessary, and proactively work to create a caring and psychologically safe environment. Stigma is what prevents all of us from speaking up and keeps some people from getting the help they need.

Next, business leaders should ask themselves: “are you qualified to share this information?” Many people think they must be a mental health professional or hold some designation to talk about sensitive topics, and that is categorically untrue. What leaders need is a willingness to share resources, and an ability to “stay in your lane” if you will. A leader may not be qualified to give mental health advice, but is uniquely qualified to tell his or her story and its impacts. And leaders are always qualified to share resources and encourage their use. For instance, they can remind workers of the availability of the Crisis Text Line, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Lastly, what do you say? Language is important in reducing stigma and allowing vulnerable people to feel compelled to seek and accept help. No one shames cancer patients by saying that they commit cancer, so we need to offer dignity to those who suffer from mental illness by using language that does not diminish their pain. A safer alternative is to say someone “died by suicide” or “lost to suicide.” Also mocking others for their struggles does not grant credibility; in fact, it steals credibility.

In addition to using appropriate verbiage, it is important to know what to convey. Here are some options on how to approach the topic.

  • Acknowledge that everyone has struggles, insecurities and obstacles they must overcome. Regardless of what those are, it is ok to not be ok. But seeking and accepting help is so very important.
  • Share information on the company or organizational EAP and encourage its use. EAP’s are historically underutilized. Put the contact information for your EAP in your phone or wallet so that you can share it efficiently.
    Share personal connections to mental health or suicide prevention to reduce stigma and challenge others to do the same
  • Share about the value of each person on the team, their unique experiences, personality, efforts, and interactions to the success of the project, team or organization
  • Share relevant statistics that may be impactful, such as number of deaths by suicide compared to workplace fatalities in the company’s state or industry
  • Leave a door open to further questions or discussions. People need to feel like it is ok to ask questions, have a follow up conversation, or even share their personal stories—and leaders should be prepared to accept that gracefully and confidentially

Anytime business leaders begin to crack the door open to conversations related to this subject, they must be prepared to have teammates share their stories. As such, be armed with resources ready and plenty of empathy. Again, leaders don’t have to be the counselor, just the respectful advisor that urges people to seek help if warranted or join the movement to prevent worker suicide by speaking up and sharing hope.

It’s important to remember, the story you tell and the way you connect with others could be all the difference they need to engage in the prevention movement, to find help or get someone else help, and to make a meaningful impact in your workplace and your community.

Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741-741
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-8255

Originally published by Construction Executive, a publication of Associated Builders and Contractors.