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You're Not Alone If You Have Suicidal Thoughts Because of Work

When we’re at work our minds are often filled to the brim with things to do and places to be. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be kind, according to new research. The truth is, we never know what other people are going through, and even small, often overlooked interactions can have a big impact.

A study done by researchers at West Virginia University revealed that actions like avoiding eye contact and leaving a coworker out of conversation can have lasting effects, even leading to suicidal thoughts among people with mood disorders. Kayla Follmer, assistant professor of management, and Jake Follmer, assistant professor of educational psychology, studied 279 people working more than 20 hours per week who have been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder.

They asked study participants to rate a variety of experiences in the workplace, alongside suicidal thoughts and job engagement over a span of months. What they found were the small slights matter a lot.

“These actions are not egregious or illegal,” Kayla Follmer 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.”

The study suggested that people who are not undergoing treatment for their mood disorder might be more impacted by these interactions. Follmer said that was about 50% of study participants.

Her hope is that workplaces will turn to including employee happiness and satisfaction in their efforts to increase output. “We all focus on bottom lines and productivity but we fail to take into account employee experiences and the effect mental illnesses can have on those experiences.” One suggestion for workplaces to tackle the issue head on is to provide mental health resources for employees.

Mighty contributor Elaine B. realized the impact her work was having on her mental health and had to make a change. “Most of my life has been ruled by fear of others and what they might say about me. The more authority they have over me, the worse the fear,” Elaine wrote, adding:

It’s amazing that the words and attitudes of one or two people can have such a major impact on me. It takes so little effort to smile, yet that can make all the difference. You don’t know the difficulties someone may be going through and one smile or one put-down can have a profound impact.

In Elaine’s situation she was able to change departments at work, but not everyone has that option. One thing her story emphasizes is the importance of monitoring your mental health as it relates to work. And with the pandemic that may be the case now more than ever.

Kayla Follmer said working remotely during the pandemic comes with its own pitfalls. Trying to communicate virtually is difficult, with tone, intent and body language easily miscommunicated, and employees may be losing their sense of connectedness to each other and to the job itself. Though their research was conducted prior to the pandemic, Follmer said, “Is 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.”

In fact, a report released by the Centers for Disease Control in mid-2020 found that the number of people who had considered suicide in the previous month doubled from 2019. In June 2020, 10.7% of people surveyed had recently had suicidal thoughts, compared with 4.3% in June 2019.

While we can’t always change everything in our work environment, knowing what is contributing to our unhappiness can go a long way toward helping us find a workable solution.  If you are feeling symptoms of depression, anxiety or any other mental health struggle, including suicidal thoughts, the important thing is to reach out for help. You’re not alone and help is available.

Header image via Weedezign/Getty Images