March is known for more than St. Patrick’s Day or the start of spring — it’s also a time for mental health education. The third month is designated Self-Harm Awareness Month, and it’s intended to spread information about the prevalence, risks, and treatment of self-harm.
An estimated 2 million Americans engage in some form of deliberate self-harm as an outlet for intense emotional distress. The exact number is hard to gauge since many people who self-harm keep their behaviors secret. Many people who self-harm are teenagers or young adults, but this destructive compulsion can persist through adulthood, too.
As with other mental illnesses and personal issues, including drug and alcohol addiction, it can seem difficult to broach the topic of self-harm with your employees or coworkers. But it’s important for those engaging in self-harm to know that others around them care about their wellbeing. Here’s how to proceed when you suspect an employee may be engaging in self-harm.
Suspect an Employee or Peer of Self-Harm?
Signs of Self-Harm
Because those that self-harm often do all they can to keep their behaviors a secret, it might be difficult to spot signs. However, sometimes symptoms do manifest, such as:
- Unexplained markings on the arms, wrists, thighs, or chest, including cuts, scars, bruises, or burns. Injuries may be explained away as “accidents” or attributed to clumsiness.
- Unexplained blood stains on clothes, towels, or bedding.
- The presence of cutting tools or sharp instruments — knives, needles, razors, glass, or bottle caps — in the person’s belongings or space.
- Wearing unseasonable clothing during warm periods. Someone engaging in self-harm may attempt to cover up signs of their injuries even when it’s hot.
- Frequent periods of solitude in the bathroom or bedroom.
Approach the Employee/Co-Worker
The first step in dealing with an employee or professional peer that you suspect of self-harm is to privately approach them to simply let them know that you are there for them if they need to talk.
Keep in mind that your employee or peer could react in a number of ways due to feeling ashamed about their self-harm or fear of being discriminated against. They may grow evasive or defensive, quickly backing out of the conversation and beginning to avoid you. If this is the case, be sure to respect their wishes and do not pressure them unless you see very clear signs of self-harm, in which case you should help them get any needed medical attention.
Sometimes, an employee or co-worker engaging in self-harm will be receptive to speaking with you about their problems. In this case, you should set aside enough private time to speak with them about their self-harm problem.
Conduct a Confidential Conversation, Focusing on Listening
When you’ve arranged a confidential time and plate to talk, it’s time to bring out your best listening skills. Here are our tips:
- At the onset of the conversation, make sure that it’s clear that it will remain confidential.
- Let the employee or colleague direct the conversation, and never pressure them to reveal more than the want to. A good way to participate in the conversation is by asking open-ended questions, but be sure to preface each one so it’s clear they don’t have to answer any question they don’t want to.
- Never attempt to diagnose or downplay their emotions. While you may feel you have relevant experience to compare their situation to, doing so may make your coworker or employee feel as though you are trivializing their struggle with self-harm. Don’t make assumptions, judgments, or sweeping statements.
To conclude your conversation, you should ask what you can do to help the situation, including providing support for treatment or other professional support to help with stress relief. If you are in Human Resources or a management role within your workplace, this would be the time to discuss options for treatment, including whether your employee could seek self-harm treatment under short-term disability or the Family and Medical Leave Act. Make it clear what options they have, and that your company will be supportive of all efforts to help their situation.
Boost Mental Health With Your Workplace Wellness Program
Self-harm is a serious issue that plagues millions of Americans. In addition to supporting employees or peers who suffer from self-harm compulsions, your company can promote mental health by developing an effective workplace wellness program that includes stress management. If you need workplace wellness assistance, your local wellness-certified Test Smartly Labs can provide expertise.
To get started, find your nearest wellness-certified Test Smartly Labs location today!