Even common workplace interactions can trigger suicidal thoughts for employees with mood disorders

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — There’s an old saying that goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Some may write off the suggestion as overly sentimental, but according to a recent study it’s advice well worth heeding. Researchers from West Virginia University warn even commonplace workplace interactions can trigger or amplify suicidal thoughts among employees with mood disorders.

For example, ignoring a good morning greeting, making a sarcastic comment, avoiding eye contact, or excluding a colleague from conversation could affect someone’s mental health.

“We know from prior research that minor forms of workplace mistreatment reduce employee engagement,” says Kayla Follmer, assistant professor of management at WVU, in a university release. “But our paper provided an explanation for why this was occurring. Mistreatment increases suicidal ideation (thoughts) and because of that, work engagement is reduced.”

Bullying and harassment aren’t the only actions that affect mental health

Study authors surveyed a total of 279 U.S. employees working at least 20 hour per week during this project. All of the participants had received a diagnosis for bi-polar disorder or depression in the past.

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

The team asked each participant to rate various workplace experiences connected to workplace mistreatment, suicidal ideation, and job engagement over the past several months. Prof. Follmer believes this is the first work ever to investigate the connection between small social transgressions in the workplace and potentially serious psychological outcomes. Notably, the negative mental effects of these moments and interactions are more intense for employees not receiving treatment for their depression or mood disorder.

“These actions are not egregious or illegal,” she explains. “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.”

Shifting from worker productivity to worker health

Study authors say their work merely confirms what so many already know: mental health in the workplace is woefully overlooked, both from a research and management perspective.

“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,” Follmer comments.

In conclusion, the research team recommends all employers and organizations provide mental health support services for their employees. While this is clearly the right thing to do anyway, they also point out that a proactive approach to worker mental health may also increase employee productivity and job engagement.

“Suicide and depression are very taboo, dark topics. It can be heavy at times to research, but that’s the responsibility we bear to bring these experiences into awareness for organizations and to tell them we can do better. And it’s our responsibility to do better for those individuals who need us,” Follmer concludes.

The team published their findings in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.