Nobody likes talking about suicide. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger argues that leaders have both a business continuity and a moral responsibility to talk about it at work no matter how uncomfortable the subject might be.
Let’s discuss Business Continuity. Most of the BC programmes that I’ve seen focused more on surviving some sort of external disruption – like a storm or a power outage – than they did on enduring the loss of critical personnel. The best BC programmes I’ve seen embraced concepts like ‘succession planning’ for critical roles, but only for command-and-control, and often only during the crisis period. I have yet to see one that addresses the grief, shock, and long-term damage to team morale that comes from irrevocably losing a team member. Death hits the survivors hard. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the loss, some people will never fully recover.
Suicide is a major issue in the veteran community. That’s why most of us older squaddies tend to pay attention to news, research, and incidents on the subject. That’s why when Matt Collins’s essay ‘My Friend Is Dead. I Don’t Know Why’ posted over on Task & Purpose last Friday, I put everything else on hold to read it. Part of me wished I hadn’t, because it felt like ripping the bandage off an old wound. I won’t deconstruct Matt’s essay here; I just want to share one of his critical points:
‘There were no warnings or signs or great burdens that he shared with me or his friends or his family. He didn’t share his feelings easily, even with those close to him. … We are left to parse the details of a private life. He robbed us of any explanation. There is no closure. There is no peace. There are no easy answers about what demons were following him. We wonder about what we could have done differently.’
Every single time that I’ve learned about the loss of one of my former unit members, I’ve felt sucker-punched by that not-knowing problem. Were there clues? What should we have done differently? Did we squander an opportunity to sway our teammate’s mind? Worst and most haunting of all: Were we somehow responsible for this, even by omission?
You never stop asking. The absence of answers is often overpowering.
As Matt said, though, there often aren’t any answers. If our teammate didn’t leave a note, confide in a friend, or seek support beforehand, it’s extremely difficult to identify what drove them to suicide. This also applies to teammates who seem to have died in ‘accidents’ where their behaviour or actions leading up to the event don’t appear to have been consistent with their normal conduct. Was their ‘accident’ really an unintended accident? Or a concealed suicide? We don’t know. We usually can’t know.
Personnel loss is an all-too-common problem without a decent BC solution. When ‘Jane’ dies, the organisation is left with a ‘Jane-shaped void.’ The company can hire a qualified replacement to cover the functional role. IT might be able to salvage some of Jane’s critical records. Those aren’t enough. Jane’s experience, perspective, working relationships, and plans are gone for good. The new person sitting in Jane’s cubicle can’t simply pick up where she left off. We pretend that it works that way, but that’s a lie.
There isn’t a way to completely prepare for the sudden loss of a co-worker. Yes, I understand that the company’s Knowledge Operations staff  can insist that every business action be documented and that all records be shared. That’s fine for evidence of historical events; it’s not a replacement for a living, breathing, co-worker’s ‘tribal knowledge.’ It doesn’t bring her back. It also doesn’t numb the pain of losing her.
The only solution that we’ve found in the veteran community is to attempt to pre-empt a teammate’s suicide consideration. We try to influence the person contemplating suicide to open up and get help. We sometimes accomplish this directly, by recognising signs and symptoms of despondency and confronting the teammate directly.  Most of the time, we have to accomplish it indirectly. That is, communicating generally without knowing for sure whether or not we’re addressing someone considering suicide. We talk about depression, hopelessness, stressors, treatments, support, and camaraderie, hoping that something we say might have a positive impact down the line.
Most of the time, the true value of your words is measured in how faithfully they’re shared by others.
The problem with the indirect approach is that you’re rarely ever sure that you’re making a meaningful difference. It’s difficult to recognize when your words and actions resonate, especially when those words and actions are being shared second- and third-hand as people repeat and deconstruct your words. People rarely admit that something you said or did changed their mind … Except when they do. Then it’s amazing.
This next part may seem like a violent change in direction. It’s not. Hang on tight:
Jeff Jacques is an American artist, writer, and musician. For the last fifteen years, he’s been responsible for a popular webcomic series called Questionable Content. It’s a ‘slice-of-life’ drama that tells long-arc stories about contemporary twenty-somethings in a technologically-advanced version of New England. The strip has talking robots as supporting characters, but it’s not a science fiction story. Most of Jeff’s strips involve a small community of young adults trying to figure out adult life while making snarky asides. While occasionally risqué, his comics are usually safe for work (per the name).
The reason I bring this up is because Jeff originally planned a multi-year story arc around one of his lead characters that involved dealing with an unexpected and unexplained suicide. From the very beginning of the strip, one of the main characters consistently manifested atypical anti-social and self-destructive tendencies that either caused or exacerbated much of the main story’s interpersonal drama.
In his comic, as in real life, most of the wit and drama tends to take place either in or else traveling to and from a coffee shop.
Jeff mentioned in the Afterword to the second volume of his strip collections that he’d originally planned the ‘reveal’ of this character’s drama to come at the end of the main story. He changed his mind around his 500th strip because he didn’t want to end the series but had come to conclusion that he had to address with the critical character arc if he was going to expand the larger story in new directions. He wrote ten consecutive strips to reveal the previously-unmentioned crucial formative incident and anxiously waited to see how his audience would react. In his own words:
‘So I started putting up the comics. And my inbox exploded.
‘Emails from folks who’d lost family members or friends or spouses to suicide. People who had attempted suicide themselves, or suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. Readers who hadn’t gone through anything like that, but who were nevertheless profoundly affected. …
‘The most poignant message I received was from a reader with a daughter of his own. He was depressed, and had been seriously considering suicide. But when he read those comics, he realized that he didn’t want to put his daughter through anything like [lead character] had endured, and decided to get help.’
Jeff’s writing saved at least one human life  and thereby prevented a devastating ruinous event for the intended stranger’s family. That’s a powerful accomplishment for any writer. You sometimes hear about how famous songwriters, poets, and performing artists change lives; how often do you hear about a webcomic writer saving a life? That’s a stunning accomplishment – one that makes all other awards and praise seem trivial by comparison. I respect what Jeff accomplished in tackling this daunting subject. He saved someone! For all I know, that someone could have been one of my soldiers.
We swore that we’d never leave a brother or sister behind. It seems like we only ever honour that promise while we’re all downrange.
The reason I referenced this story is because it illustrates  how incredibly effective it is to actually talk about the problem. Jeff broached the subject through comic fiction, but he did address it frankly. He didn’t make it cute. He didn’t dance around the topic. He pushed past his natural reluctance to talk about a taboo subject and explored the tremendous rippling impact that a person’s suicide can have on the people around them in stark and unflinching terms. He said what needed to be said. As a direct result, an anonymous reader who had been considering suicide read his words and reconsidered his options.
This is what I’m on about: as leaders we have to talk with our people about suicide. No one likes doing this. It’s not fun. It can’t (and shouldn’t!) be made fun. It’s a deeply disturbing topic. It’s also one that absolutely cannot be ignored. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs conducted a study in 2013 that addressed veteran suicides from 1999 to 2010. They found that 22 veterans were dying by suicide every damned day … that’s one every 65 minutes. We started addressing this problem in earnest in the US military after that report came out, but 2014’s data suggested that we only lowered the rate from 22/day to 20/day. That’s not nearly enough.
I’m bringing this up in a business-themed context because that seems to be the best way to convince senior leaders that this is problem directly affects them. Hopefully they’ll feel called to action. I exhort business leaders to not brush this off as a ‘veterans’ problem; it’s our problem in the business world because it affects our employees, directly and indirectly. Suicide affects both the colleagues that you lose, and all of the friends and family members that lose someone close to them to suicide.
Jeff Jacques demonstrated that a writer can positively influence a suicidal person and he did that indirectly, through a static webcomic. He took an awful risk; he could have alienated his audience, and (thereby) lost his entire livelihood. He addressed it for literary integrity. Surely you can talk about it for pragmatic business concerns.
If economics is what it takes to spur you to action on this subject, so be it. My troopers’ lives mean more to me than pride or propriety.
If this is too unsettling a subject to talk about, then I advise treating it dispassionately, as another what-if Business Continuity challenge. Dying in a tornado strike is awful too, and we seem to have no problem discussing preventative and post-storm recovery operations in routine BC planning. If that’s what it takes, then attack it that-a-way. Add suicide recovery to the list of crucial BC planning factors and address it in the workplace. Get past your natural revulsion and act.
Consider how many people you might influence though active engagement, like a town-hall meeting, departmental conference, or one-on-one conversation. As a business leader, your words and actions have far more impact than you probably appreciate. Moreover, you have literally nothing to lose by leveraging your position and authority. Your people aren’t going to ‘unsubscribe’ from your messages. They’re your employees, not fickle casual content consumers. They have to listen to you. Maybe, if you’re sincere and compelling, they’ll actually consider what you have to say. Conversely, your people will never be influenced by topics that you’re too scared to discuss.
 … or whatever passes for it. Your naming convention may vary.
 I’ve done this. It never gets easy.
 I’d wager more than one; only one person admitted it to him.
 Pun not intended but accepted as inevitable.
Title Allusions: Jeff Jacques, Questionable Content Volume 2 (2011 book). Also available online for free at QuestionableContent.net. The ten-strip series with the suicide character arc reveal starts here.
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.