When Career Suicide Felt Like The Only Option
Jane contacted me after reading one of my blog posts (Anxiety Attack Anyone?). We realised we'd gone through a similar experience around the same time, in the same high-rise building, in the same organisation. She was a peer of mine, though we didn't know each other well, I had a huge amount of respect for her (now even more so). Never in a million years would I have thought she was experiencing mental health issues, a suicidal crisis in fact, brought on by an extreme case of workplace bullying. The situation became so unbearable that one day, after a particularly unpleasant altercation with him, she gazed out of her office window with desperate thoughts of jumping out. She wanted it to end. Thank goodness the windows in those buildings don't open.
Bullying is defined as "unwanted conduct that is intentionally offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting to the recipient".
Ironically, preferring to leave her well paid executive position, Jane knowingly committed "career suicide" shortly after. This involved reporting the bully and her passive manager to HR in the faint hope she would receive some support, but deep down she knew that the only person to lose out would be herself. Support didn't come, in fact, the opposite. I can relate to this all too well, as will some of my readers who have reached out with similar experiences. She was cast out, her mental health suffered further and her solution was to take herself away and focus on getting well, as far away from the workplace as she could go. She didn't work for over a year. He's still there.
In the same year, a study showed that 15% of employees who disclosed mental health issues to their line manager reported being disciplined, dismissed or demoted.
In my training as a Samaritan*, we learnt that it's GOOD to talk about suicide. But hang on there, it wasn't a conversation around my family dinner table and I don't remember it being taught at school. It may feel alien and uncomfortable, but my goodness wouldn't you rather have asked, than not? It's a myth that you can plant a seed of suicide in someone's head, you can't give someone the idea, so where is the harm?
Among the general population, 1 in 5 people have had suicidal thoughts at some time in their life, so it's not uncommon, but how many people reading this have had an actual conversation about suicide with a friend or family member? Rarely, if ever? In 2018 there were 6,154 suicides in Great Britain. Less than a third of that figure (1,784 people) died in road traffic accidents. I'll leave that with you to ponder over for a moment, as it still blows me away.
Suicide was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1961, yet we still use the term "committed" as if it's a crime. Nowadays, phrases like "died by suicide" or "completed suicide" hold less stigma.
What about talking about suicide with a work colleague? In the USA, more people are killing themselves in the workplace than ever before, with an increase of 11% (to 304) in 2018, the highest figure since the Bureau of Labor of Statistics began tracking the data 27 years ago. And this is probably an undercount of the real total as it's often difficult to determine the relationship to the workplace. In the UK, work-related suicides are not even officially monitored or recorded. So it's no wonder that workplace suicide remains a largely hidden phenomenon in this country - unrecognised in legislation, absent from official statistics and widely misunderstood.
So what can we do as individuals, as a friend, sister, wife, mother? We can start by talking and listening. Maybe if you feel confident discussing the subject of suicide with your work colleagues, perhaps try it first with a friend tonight... "have you ever had suicidal thoughts?". You don't need to be a therapist or a medical professional to have the conversation, just be a good listener. I spend time during the Mental Health First Aid course on this topic, so if you'd like to learn more about how to talk about suicide, and potentially stop a suicidal crisis from happening, please get in touch.
(Jane's name has been changed to protect her identity. She is now a successful senior leader in the Financial Services industry, doing what she does best).
The Corporate Mind by Ann Camargo
*If you are affected by suicide in the UK or Ireland, you can call the Samaritans for free on 116 123.