The first time my brother’s employer learned he had ever experienced mental health issues was at 9am on a November day in 2017, when the HR manager received a telephone call. My parents and I, huddled around a mobile in an empty flat, informed her that the calm, confident 36-year-old she had suspended from work the day before had jumped to his death.
The sound of her collapsing into tears is one I will never forget. The horror, which had begun with a policeman at my parents’ door the previous night, was beginning to spread. Soon my brother’s colleagues would be called into a room to be given the news.
Suicide is an atom bomb. It does not only kill; it irradiates everyone it touches and its effects last a lifetime. A 2018 study showed that for every death by suicide, up to 135 people can be affected to some degree. Shock and grief are inevitably bound up with guilt over not somehow being a better parent, sibling, colleague or friend – for not seeing, not being able to stop it.
For myself and my parents, the explosion had happened when the police gave us a short, handwritten note from my brother, directing us to a longer letter on his computer in his London flat. After a nightmare early morning train journey, we found the letter as he had promised. Also on his desk were his will and a letter suspending him from his job because a complaint had been made over an historic issue which we believe could have been resolved.
Later we found another leaflet, tossed to one side. It gave details of his office’s employee assistance programme.
My brother worked for an organisation whose aims he passionately believed in, and to which he had devoted most of his adult life. His friends and social circle were all connected to his work. His suspension cut him off not only from his employment, but his way of life.
Although he had suffered from depression some years previously, he was in a good place. He had plans for the weekend and had even gone out on his lunch break that day to buy new shirts. He knew nothing of the complaint that had been made against him until he was called into a meeting just before 5pm to be told he was suspended.
After the meeting, my brother left the building and returned to his flat, where he lived alone. A witness saw him jump off a bridge just after 10.30pm that evening. There is no evidence he spoke to anyone after he left the office.
I do not want anyone else to suffer the way my family and my brother’s friends and colleagues have. I strongly believe that if a suspension process is inadequate, it does not matter how well-meaning the people who implement it are. It can still kill.
It is my hope that HR professionals can take away three learning points from my brother’s experience. First, there needs to be a recognition that any suspension could trigger suicide, no matter how unlikely this might seem.
My brother, like many others, had not disclosed his past mental health issues. For others who may have had no mental health issues in the past, the trauma of suspension alone could be enough to consider suicide. Everyone involved in disciplinary processes needs to recognise there is a risk of suicide and consider what measures can be put in place to prevent it.
Second, if your work is your vocation, suspension could lead to a dangerous loss of identity. It must have cut deep into the heart of my brother’s self-image. Even if the employee is assured the suspension does not mean there is an assumption of guilt, it will feel like a punishment. Suspension can isolate them from support networks, especially if they have been explicitly warned not to speak to colleagues.
Finally, the employee is at risk of suicide from the moment they leave the suspension meeting. My brother’s employer had plans in place to contact him in the following days, not realising this would be too late. He was also handed an employee assistance programme leaflet and advised to contact his union, which he did not do.
Employees may not feel able to take the initiative to seek out the help they need in the traumatic hours following a suspension. The process needs to consider how an employee can be best supported after leaving the meeting and should offer practical help to contact a trusted person. If the employee is a member of a union, arrangements should be made for a rep to be on hand.
My family and I would like to encourage employers to adopt a scheme similar to the one instituted by Bristol University following a spate of student suicides. It has created an opt-in programme which allows students to identify a trusted person – not necessarily a next of kin – who can be contacted if there are concerns about their mental wellbeing.
It is normal practice for employees to give details of an emergency contact in case they are taken physically ill at work. If a trusted person was nominated for times of mental stress, the script for the suspension meeting could include suggesting this person should be contacted.
Talking to an employee about suicide might seem daunting. There may be a fear it could put the idea into someone’s head or make them more likely to take their own life, but in fact the opposite is true. The Zero Suicide Alliance offers free online training to help anyone who wants to feel more confident in having that difficult conversation.
I know the people who suspended my brother did not want him to die. They followed Acas guidelines and thought they had done everything they were meant to. I can understand that. After all, before my brother’s death I knew that statistically, he was more likely to die of suicide than of any other cause. But of course, my clever, sensible, confident brother would never do anything like that.
The first step in preventing another death is to be aware anyone might be at risk of taking their life in the right circumstances. Once we acknowledge that, we can begin to learn how to prevent it.
* The name of the author has been changed to protect her family's privacy
The Zero Suicide Alliance has further information for employers at zerosuicidealliance.com
The Samaritans can be reached via samaritans.org or by calling 116 123