What can HR do when an employee is self-harming?

This article discusses self-harm and suicide. If you are thinking about committing suicide or engaging in self-harm, dial 988 to reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

This article also discusses domestic violence. If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

Navigating sensitivities around an employee at risk for self-harm comes with challenges for both tact and compliance. 

While loneliness has been in the spotlight as a health crisis and neurodiversity now has a seat at the DEI table, self-harm is still one area of conversation that remains largely untouched by the HR community.

Previously, HR experts have weighed in on the do’s and don’ts of addressing employees contemplating suicide or participating in self-harm. But how does that stack up in a hybrid work setting?

Dr. Heidi L. Kar, a licensed clinical psychologist and Education Development Center’s principal advisor on mental health, trauma, and violence initiatives, corresponded with HR Dive over email about what self-harm is and how business leaders can behave accordingly. 

A key takeaway: While there may be some warning signs of self-harm, “none are specific enough to be used as a diagnostic,” Kar said.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HR DIVE: What is self-harm and what are some examples?

HEIDI KAR: Self-harm is the deliberate act of causing physical harm to oneself. Usually, when people self-harm, they do not intend to kill themselves. Instead, they engage in the behavior(s) either due to an attempt to ease the overwhelming emotional pain they are experiencing by replacing it with physical pain, or due to some types of intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. 

Some examples of self-harm include: Cutting or piercing the skin with sharp objects, hitting/punching oneself or other things, and/or burning oneself. Though it is not associated with suicide, in severe cases, self-harming behaviors can be life-threatening.

What are some signs that someone is self-harming?

Signs include things like scars, fresh cuts/bruises/bite marks or burns on a person’s body, behavior that includes keeping sharp objects close at hand or multiple reports of experiencing injuries from accidents. However, scars can be caused by a whole host of things including violence from others, medical treatment or illness. 

Bites or cuts can be caused by pets and indeed, accidents can and do happen and some people have more than their fair share. As such, it is very important to not pathologize or jump to conclusions about any of these warning signs, in isolation. 

More helpful and relevant is to try and understand if a person is struggling with high emotional distress, as that is generally the cause for self-harming behavior.

 

Is there any way to can tell a co-worker is self-harming over Zoom or in a remote work setting?

Unless someone is directly injuring themselves in front of other staff, assumptions — about scars, long-sleeve wearing, cuts or bruises — should not be made. If a staff member is concerned about the well-being of a co-worker, of course, showing concern directly to the person and/or seeking guidance from a supervisor and/or HR is warranted.

But, unless the staff member discloses that they were the ones who inflicted those hurts, burns, or scars on themselves and that they were nonsuicidal in nature, it isn’t possible to diagnose. 

Staff may be victims of domestic violence and try to hide evidence of that in all of the same ways as staff who self-harm do.

What should you do if you think someone is self-harming? More specifically: What should HR do if one of their employees is self-harming?

As with any concerning behavior that could be harmful to an employee, it is important to offer help and appropriate support to a staff member. Self-harming behavior may be the symptom of a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

As such, employers are permitted to ask a worker questions about the concerning issue if they believe a direct threat to the employee is present. 

HR should also provide the employee a referral to their EAP program, of course. 

One of the complex aspects of self-harming behavior is the fact that signs of self-harm may be indicative of benign or at least completely different issues, but the same is true in the other direction. 

Suicidal self-injury can involve many of the same behaviors — especially cutting — and a mental health professional is always in the best position to evaluate the context and motives of these types of violent behaviors to best understand what the behaviors are indicative of and what the level of risk to the individual is. 

As such, HR may wish to partner with a mental health professional for consultation about approach and obviously for referral support. Of course, HR cannot force anyone to avail [themselves] of mental health support.