Coping with the death of a colleague by suicide


The death of a workplace colleague by suicide can leave people feeling shocked, bewildered, angry or guilty.

Mr Paul O'Hare, external relations manager for the Samaritans, said that while colleagues can be devastated, the workplace is unlikely to be the cause for someone taking their own life. Indeed, some people find work a release from other stresses.

"It has a devastating impact on colleagues whenever somebody they're close to, even in a working sense, would take their own life," he said.

"It's very, very important to make sure that people who are in the workplace who are suffering from stress would be properly identified.

"Their problem isn't necessarily going to be connected to the job or the work they're doing or the pressures they have in their workplace," Mr O'Hare said.

"Some people may take shelter in their workplace from the pressures that they have outside.

"In a workplace environment, you come in, you're a colleague, you're specifically trained to do a specific job and you have a job description. And you knuckle down and you do the job.

"Or you don't as the case may be. And that's how people relate to you. They wouldn't necessarily see the other aspects to the life, the deep unhappiness which may exist.

"We get calls mainly about relationships, financial worries and issues to do with loss. Those would be three big, big themes that Samaritan volunteers would listen to," he explained.

Workplace colleagues won't necessarily pick up on someone who's feeling very low or suicidal. "The whole thing is that you're at work and you're seen in your work persona. Colleagues don't get to see aspects of your character and aspects of your lifestyle which may be making you extremely unhappy."

It's always difficult to tell from external appearances how anybody feels inside.

"Indeed, one of the factors that we have identified as being precursors in somebody's suicide is that if you've been down for quite some time, not clinically depressed but if you've been down and a bit depressed and suffering from stress and suddenly you perk up," said Mr O'Hare.

"And people around you are thinking `Oh, that's great. Your man is in so much better form than he was'. That can be a precursor because you've actually made up your mind what you're going to do."

When a suicide takes place, talking can heal. But it should be "talked about in a productive way", he said.

"Obviously a workplace environment is a place you come to be productive and earn a salary so maybe that's not the most appropriate place to do it."

However, Mr O'Hare said employers are becoming much more aware if their staff are upset "and if there is a real issue surrounding an event such as a suicide they will be quite sensitive to that and take action accordingly". That can range from the provision of some sort of psychological service for workers to just taking somebody aside and asking if they're OK, he said.

"Suicide is not a desire to die. It's a desire to stop living with the emotional pain that you're enduring," he added.

"So people who take their own lives don't desire to die. They just desire to stop living the way they are at the moment. That obviously has a lot of implications for the workplace because obviously work plays such a big role in everybody's lives."

Work can be such a big part of a person's life and identity that people build their entire lives around it. So when something goes wrong in their workplace, it can leave them more vulnerable to taking their own life. But workers or employers, following the suicide of a colleague, should keep any feelings of guilt in perspective.

"It's not just going to be the workplace that would have led somebody to choose suicide as an option. It would also be other things," Mr O'Hare said.

People finding difficulty in talking to other people about their inner life can always talk to a Samaritan. They will never condemn anyone for anything and will "listen to you talk about your life and how you feel about it for as long as you need to". As well as telephone support, the Samaritans provide an e-mail service where people can receive confidential emotional support online.

Accessible from the Samaritan website, two e-mail options are available, one of which, is anonymous. Not even the Samaritans know who has contacted them.

Samaritans: 1850 609090 (Republic); 08457 909090 (Northern Ireland). Website: