The hardest questions I had to face after a co-worker died by suicide were the “What ifs?” What if I had known sooner? What if I had known more? What if I had been able to provide more support?

My colleague was a talented individual and did great work. Shortly before he passed away, we learned he was struggling with mental health issues. We offered time off and connected him with an employee mental health program, but it was too little, too late.

Unfortunately, many of us have lost a co-worker, friend or loved one to suicide. Between April and June, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found 40% of all Americans were suffering from mental or behavioral health problems. One in 10 said they had seriously considered suicide during the past month. These numbers are significantly higher compared to the same period in 2019.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month and what happened to my co-worker has made me think more about what we can do for an employee who is struggling. In our workplaces we need to create a climate in which employees can safely talk about mental health issues especially at a time when so many people feel isolated.

Avetta recently published “Social Distancing: The importance of Staying Connected” that offers ways to help employees strengthen ties with each other at work. Here are some tips to help employers and executives to assist employees who may be struggling with mental health issues but will also benefit all employees:

Present practical information

Not knowing is worse than knowing. Top executives should provide useful information to employees regularly, including new policies enacted during the pandemic, changes happening in the business and resources available to support employees.

Instant messaging
Chat software like WhatsApp or Whiteboard can help employees both to deal with business challenges through online meetings and to stay connected to their work colleagues. Encourage employees to pay attention to these messages because this may be their primary form of communication while they are isolated.

Video conferencing

Some of us may have “Zoom fatigue” but video meetings allow employees to see their co-workers’ reactions and emotions in real time and to hear their voices. For some this will be their only opportunity to have some sort of office environment.

Supporting each other

Offering positive peer support helps employees become more resilient to deal with stress and anxiety. A lot of communication is non-verbal and so it’s important to have face time even if technology is needed to do it.

We do more than work

Think of ways to have shared moments to chat, laugh and take a virtual “coffee break.”

Speak up if you’re struggling

Working from home can be a real struggle for some employees. Again, workers should feel like they can have regular and frank conversations about their struggles with their supervisor or HR representative.

Mental Health has always been one of those areas that in the past has been stigmatized and taboo to discuss, especially in high-risk industries. However, we are now seeing a broader acceptance and understanding of mental health issues and the impact that they have in the workplace. And, with the right policies and programs in place, employers can provide immediate support.

One positive aspect of the pandemic is there is a broader proliferation of telemedicine and mental health help than ever before. We are not trained therapists and we should not feel like we have to be one. However, we can look, listen and support anyone we see struggling.