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Safeguard Magazine

NZISM perspective—A tight team unravels

SELENA ARMSTRONG on the loss of a friend and colleague to suicide and the devastating impact on the work team she was part of.

Monday 10th September was World Suicide Prevention Day, and I want to mark it by sharing a personal story. On 21st August it was ten years since one of the highest functioning teams I have worked in was devasted by the loss of a friend and colleague to suicide.

Collectively we have a responsibility to address, engage and support those who are suffering from mental health issues. It is estimated by Safe Work Australia that 45% of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, 20% in the next 12 months. Mental injury claims cost an average of 40% more than physical injury claims and 41% of Victorian workers who suffer a mental injury are still not back at work six months later.

My friend and colleague Michelle’s demon was depression. One day she called to let me know she had been suffering. Looking back, it was to prepare me for what was to come, but at the time I was really surprised by her admission, because at face value it was hard to relate the Michelle I knew to the one I was speaking to – she was always so upbeat, so warm and engaging.

On that call I checked she was taking care of herself and let her know she could take all the time she needed, and that she was in our thoughts. We discussed changing medication and the importance of regular exercise. After we spoke I felt relieved she could finally talk about what had been going on, but also sad that she had to hide her depression, that it was a source of embarrassment to her; instead of seeing it for the medical condition it was, she saw it as a personal failing and something she needed to hide in her professional life.

Within a week of that call she was dead.

A TEAM IS BROKEN

There was no protocol for this at work. The health and safety rep was in the HR team and did their best to support us through it. None of us took the counselling offered, and I cried every day on the way to work for at least a month. I hated walking back into that office and sitting opposite an empty desk. I wanted to leave but felt like it would be running away and I loved my job and my team.

We stopped going to Friday night drinks and there were no more team lunches. Eventually we had to fill her role and that was really tough; we were acutely aware that whoever we brought into the team could face a heavy burden. In the end we employed a young guy who was different in every way imaginable to Michelle. No one was going to take her place in our team and in our hearts, but the job needed to get done.

As time went on it became clear that we were no longer the high functioning team we had been. We were connected now by the pain of loss and not by the drive of success. Slowly, one by one, we moved on.

This was not a case of work-related suicide, but it shows the impact of suicide in the workplace; I am at a loss as to how one would deal with it if experiences at work had contributed to the death of a colleague.

PEER SUPPORT

I want to live and work in a world with compassion, where we care about our team mates, where we have the tools to recognise symptoms of mental health distress, so we can support our colleagues through tough times, so help comes soon enough to make a difference, so high functioning teams are not devastated, so suicide is prevented.

Compassionate and connected workplaces create engaged and loyal teams, who are efficient, effective and have a sense of ownership about the role they play in driving the success of the space they call work.

NZISM is initiating a peer support programme so that our members have access to a regional network of peers who are available 24/7 to connect with and support members who may be suffering from mental health issues or facing other issues that require a helping hand.

If you are worried about your own suicide risk or that of someone close to you please contact the Suicide Crisis Hotline, phone 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).

Selena Armstrong is chief executive of NZISM.

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