Common workplace interactions can trigger suicidal thoughts

January 24, 2021

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Common workplace interactions can trigger suicidal thoughts

Ignoring a colleague's greeting or making a sarcastic comment in the workplace may actually do more harm than intended, according to new research.

Even perceived low-grade forms of workplace mistreatment, such as avoiding eye contact or excluding a coworker from conversation, can amplify suicidal thoughts in employees with mood disorders, according to the study.

What the researchers say: “We know from prior research that minor forms of workplace mistreatment reduce employee engagement,” the lead author said. “But our paper provided an explanation for why this was occurring. Mistreatment increases suicidal ideation (thoughts) and because of that, work engagement is reduced.”

The research team surveyed 279 American adults who are employed 20 or more hours a week and diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder.

“What we wanted to do was home in on employees most likely to experience these effects because that gives us greater opportunity for intervention,” she said.

The researchers then asked participants to rate various experiences relating to workplace mistreatment, suicidal ideation, and job engagement over several months.

The researchers believe this is the first study that links these types of workplace mistreatments to potentially serious psychological outcomes. Their findings are published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

“These actions are not egregious or illegal,” they said. “It's not even considered bullying or harassment. These are ways, on a day-to-day basis, that you might hurt somebody but in a low-grade way. It's how we may behave, and we don't think twice about it.”

Another finding from the study suggests that these effects are stronger for those not receiving treatment for their depression or mood disorder. The lead author estimated that roughly 50 percent of participants fit into that category. “We all focus on bottom lines and productivity but we fail to take into account employee experiences and the effect mental illness can have on those experiences,” she said.

In turn, organizations can enhance the workplace environment by providing mental health resources to employees, which may increase production and job satisfaction.

While research for this study was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers believe—as I do—that the world of remote work intensifies the effects of mental health and workplace engagement. Employees no longer working in a traditional office setting because of the pandemic may feel less engaged. And virtual communication can be easily misconstrued, adding a layer of instability.

“In some ways, our results may be even more important now because we know that depression and anxiety are at the highest levels they've been,” the lead researcher said.

So, what? Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety were rapidly increasing before COVID-19 struck. In fact, workplace stress was rising at the rate of 70% every four years and had increased by over 200% since 2010.

Undue stress can lead to depression, as can separation from the workplace “tribe” due to remote working.

Suicidality is also on the increase, and this is one of the problems that the researchers need to do more work on. There is no real evidence that depression itself leads to suicide, anxiety yes, especially in its more virulent forms such as PTSD and panic disorder. Elements in the real and virtual workplace are triggering the genetic bases of depression, suicidality, anxiety, PTSD and PD.

I am not sure that the researchers have proved their point that minor slights can lead depressive people to ideate suicide. Disengagement, acute stress, sub-clinical depression and low-level anxiety, yes. But suicide?

Something more is going on here, and that needs a ton more research.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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