Thursday, January 26, 2017

Crisis Leadership Following Death by Suicide

Republished with permission of Insurance Thought Leadership

Photo by Benjamin Child
Suicide breaks all the rules. Consider the vigilant life-long efforts people make to grow and flourish. Remember the countless reminders received from parents, educators, medical professionals, and other caretakers to remain safe and healthy. Measure the perpetual efforts made to build toward a successful life. Remember the desperation when presented by a threat to life and the efforts made to escape it. Relive the grief at the loss of a loved one. Breath by breath, second by second we focus upon Life. Is it any wonder that people are shocked when someone willfully chooses to abandon this shared quest by completing suicide? Death by suicide powerfully jars our concept of the way life is supposed to be and challenges core foundations such as “What can I really trust?”

When death by suicide strikes the workplace employees immediately look to its leadership for direction. How those leaders respond when all eyes are upon them offers both tremendous opportunity and serious risk for the subsequent outcomes. At risk is trust. Some will react more strongly than others (Some co-workers may now be at increased risk for their own self-harm) but when exposed to this event the primary question regresses to “How would leadership respond if it was me? How valued am I?”

Effective crisis leadership after suicide demonstrates trustworthiness at three levels: Competence, Character, and Compassion. These elements are not mutually exclusive and must be in evidence simultaneously.

·         Especially when shaken, people need to experience leadership that has a plan and demonstrates expertise. Acknowledge your own pain but let people see you move forward confidently. People must witness someone who is also impacted and fully acknowledges that impact but is strong enough to move forward while sad. There is tremendous power in strong, calm presence. Calm is just as contagious as fear.

·         Communicate sensitive but confident belief in others’ competence. Express a firm expectation of recovery and return to a New Normal. Guide people to efficacy through sensitive resumption of familiar tasks and schedules. They need to know you believe in them and will support their success.
·         Demonstrate competence by bringing expert resources into play such as the EAP to provide support and guidance.

·         Those led must witness leadership that keeps promises, operates by the rules, and “does the right thing.” Suicide breaks rules. Sometimes suicide feels like a lie. Leadership must cherish shared life-giving values, especially at this time.

·         Suspicion and distrust need not be logical to be powerful. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Minus current information people tend to develop their own and that misinformation can be very damaging.

·         Demonstrate caring. Death by suicide is a very human crisis. Care for the family of the deceased as well as others who are particularly impacted. People will equate that caring with the value you hold for them.

·         Build community by being visible to groups of impacted co-workers and emphasizing the strength available through community. Remind work teams to support each other both emotionally and functionally while they may not be at their best.

Do the right thing and it’s good for business. Crisis leadership aims to mitigate the human, financial, productivity, reputational, and morale costs of tragedy. When death by suicide impacts an organization it produces a day people will never forget. Those you lead will not. Neither will you. Lead them well.

Insurance Thought Leadership’s ongoing series of articles focused on suicide prevention is authored by the Workplace Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the public-private partnership championing suicide prevention as a national priority.

About the Author:
Bob VandePol serves as Director of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Service’s Employee Assistance Program. He helps business leaders leverage behavioral health expertise to enhance the health and productivity of their work teams. Active as a keynote speaker and author, his areas of particular interest include suicide prevention, leading mission-driven teams, and facilitating individual and organizational resilience after tragedies. He is a member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Workplace Task Force that developed the Workplace Blueprint for Suicide Prevention. He can be reached at or (616) 258-7548.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

When Workplace Safety is a Core Value, Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention Matter

By Ronn Lehmann and Sally Spencer-Thomas

In a true Culture of Safety, safety always wins. It is the first among equals; it is the card that beats all others. In short, Safety is a Core Value of the organization.

Safety and other Core Values are:
  • Continuously communicated.
  • Lived by leaders in their words and behaviors.
  • Formally and informally reinforced, recognized and rewarded
  • Integrated throughout all operations.
  • Used as a compass to guide decisions.
  • Measured and monitored against goals.
  • Committed to, not simply complied with.

The Importance of Mindsets
Photo By Jesse Orrico

It’s my firm belief that for an individual to be successful at anything, he or she has to have the right Mindset, Skillset, and Toolset. And of these, the most important is Mindset. Why? Because Mindsets drive Behaviors.

Mindsets are created by a wide variety of factors: upbringing, social circles, religion, education, etc. But when it comes to the workplace, mindsets are created and reinforced by the organization’s Culture.

People behave safely when they have a Safety Mindset, a belief that safety in the workplace is their responsibility, both for themselves and others. That belief leads to decision-making based on the potential hazards and risks of any behavior.

Safety and Mental Health

The Core Value of Safety is not just about the right safety gear or procedures. It creates an environment where the mental well-being of the people is just as important as their physical safety.

Did you know 1 in 5 Americans in the workplace live with a diagnosable mental health condition? While many are able to use medication, treatment, wellness practices and peer support to manage these health conditions, too many go unidentified and untreated, And like most neglected health conditions, their status often worsens unnecessarily.

Unaddressed mental health conditions and addictions can negatively affects productivity, attention to detail, quality of work and the safety of the individual as well as co-workers, but with treatment, support, and wellness, people living with mental health conditions can be some of your most gifted employees. Most employers simply aren’t aware that often people with the strongest work ethic, creativity, charisma, detail-orientation, and interpersonal skills as also sometimes vulnerable to depression, bipolar condition, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety.

When left unchecked mental health conditions and addiction can be life-threatening. Tragically, the suicide rate in the United States has been steadily increasing since 1999, especially among working-age men. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death for males ages 25 to 54 in 2014.

Photo by Samuel Zeller
When Safety is a Core Value, it goes beyond preventing physical illness and injury. It also includes supporting the emotional well-being of employees. Beyond being the right thing to do, it is in the organization’s economic best interest to ensure that its employees are mentally resilient, healthy, and productive. There is a significant return on investment by promoting employee mental health, positively impacting everything from disability and workman's compensation to productivity and employee retention.

Does your Culture reflect the value of Mental Health?

It can be difficult to determine the true nature of an organization’s culture when you’re inside it. As the noted media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it, “We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't the fish.”

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continually evaluate your Safety Culture, especially in terms of mental health. These questions can help you determine if mental health is part of your Core Value of Safety:
  • What does your company’s culture say about how you value mental health as a part of overall wellness?
  • What does the work environment tell people about how they should best deal with stress? Conflict? Depression? Addiction? 
  • Does your company’s leadership model mentally healthy behavior? Is emotional intelligence and mental health self-care supported?
  • Is anyone at the top level of leadership “out” and talking about their recovery journey from addiction or mental health challenges?
  • Is mental health promotion and suicide prevention part of your Health and Safety Programs? (e.g., training on early identification and intervention, mental health resources like Employee Assistance Programs, suicide prevention hotlines, peer support resources, etc.)
  • Do employees recognize unidentified and untreated addiction and serious mental health conditions as a potential safety hazard just as they would someone with a head injury, heart condition or broken leg?

Culture is Everyone’s Responsibility

Photo by Robin Yang
Cultures aren’t something “out there”. They are created and maintained by individuals, not organizations. They are the sum total of the shared values of everyone in the organization, how each individual shows up and creates an environment for others to show up.

Anyone can — and does — have influence over the culture. Of course, Leaders have significant influence, but Culture is not simply their responsibility. To a larger or lesser degree, every employee influences the Culture every day.

If you want to have a true Safety Culture, everyone in the organization must have:
  • A Mindset of Safety, viewing every situation and decision through the lens of safety.
  • Safe Behaviors that ensure a safe workplace.
  • A recognition that mental health is as vital as physical health.
  • An understanding of resources available to stay physically and mentally healthy.

Cultures are created, reinforced, or even changed one person at a time, having the right Mindset to lead to the desired behaviors. That’s how you move Safety beyond a program or set of rules to “the way things are done around here.”

Promoting mental health, suicide prevention as well as physical health and safety is how an organization truly lives its Core Value of Safety.

About the Authors:

SALLY SPENCER-THOMAS: As a clinical psychologist, mental health advocate, faculty member, and survivor of her brother's suicide, Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas sees the issues of suicide prevention from many perspectives. Currently, she is the CEO and Co-Founder of the Carson J Spencer Foundation (, a Colorado-based organization leading innovation in suicide prevention. One of the main programs of the Carson J Spencer Foundation is “Working Minds: Suicide Prevention in the Workplace” – the nation’s first comprehensive and sustained program designed to help employers with the successful prevention, intervention and crisis management of suicide ( Additionally, she is the Co-Lead of the Workplace Task Force for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, and the Co-Chair of the Workplace Special Interest Group of the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

RONN LEHMANN: With over 25 years as an independent consultant, Ronn Lehmann advises organizations and leaders to ensure that their culture supports their goals, especially in the areas of Safety, Quality, and Productivity. He has worked with organizations in a wide range of industries to help them create cultural strategies that support their efforts to create a safe and successful workplace. Ronn conducts Cultural Audits for organizations, facilitates Safety Culture workshops, and speaks on the topics of Culture, Leadership, Safety Commitment and the Hazard of Complacency. He has been a visiting instructor at Century College, and has contributed to several books, including “Even Eagles Need A Push” by David McNally, “Playing To Win” by Larry and Hersch Wilson, “Making the Grass Greener on Your Side” by Ken Melrose, CEO of Toro Corporation, and “Fire Yourself” by John Rusciano and Lisa Brezonik.