Downsizing, Stress, Violence, and Suicide: What are the Risks?
Screening, Assessment, and Prevention Guidelines

These general guidelines are for educational purposes and are not intended as professional or legal advice.  Please seek counsel and consultation on specific situations facing your organization.

During downsizing and redeployment feelings can run high, among those departing and among those remaining.  This should not lead to inordinate worry about serious violence, and proper preparation can mitigate the risks of impulsive outbursts, retaliation or sabotage.  With a few additional indicators, the recognized warning signs of workplace homicidal violence can be relied upon during downsizing as well.  Threat management teams or representatives can take proactive steps to screen for and better manage volatility.

Normal reactions to job loss due to economic downturn

During a downsizing period, the degree and manifestation of individual stress varies widely.  Common reactions may include:

  • Shock
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety about the future
  • Depressive feelings or mood swings
  • Withdrawal from normal social patterns
  • Bargaining to stay
  • Impatience to “get on with it”
  • Procrastination regarding job search activities
  • Physical manifestations of anxiety and stress
  • Sleep disturbance

By themselves, these reactions should not raise concern about violence, but lead to recognized employer practices for assisting affected workers: severance packages, extended health benefits coverage, practical career transition services, and EAP counseling.

Additional warning signs should be heeded during large-scale job loss

Along with the basic list of warning signs, these additional indicators may help identify individuals who could become violent in a downsizing context:

  • Strong anger over the impending job cutbacks
  • Strong attachment to job as part of identity or life
  • Strong personalizing of management decision not to retain the individual
  • References to workplace violence past or future
  • Failure or refusal to engage in new job search activities
  • Rage, increased blaming, or depression over failure to obtain new employment

Stabilizers or indicators suggesting an individual is less likely to be violent

  • Positive indicators that are contrary to or suggest inhibition of violence potential include:
  • Shows genuine concern that threatening people is wrong; makes apologies and amends
  • Responds favorably to fear-reducing limit setting
  • Makes use of positive social support  (family, friends, colleagues)
  • Uses positive or socially sanctioned means to resolve differences (e.g. seeking legal help or union assistance)
  • Makes plans for the future (after job loss)
  • Shows capacity & willingness to negotiate settlements, problem solve.
  • Wants to avoid negative consequences (e.g. termination, arrest, prosecution) for threatening or intimidating others.

The risk and warning signs of suicide associated with downsizing

The risk of suicide, although small, is a more frequent reaction to job loss than violence toward others.  Be aware of someone who has a very down mood, seems hopeless about the future, conveys a strong sense of shame, and may have other external stressors or losses causing emotional pain, especially if the person is older.  About 50-75% of suicidal individuals communicate their intent prior to the act, so clear opportunities to intervene exist.  Only a very small group of suicidal individuals are homicidal, but it is a question that should be kept in mind.  Look for extreme anger toward others, or a strong sense of being rejected, betrayed or humiliated.  Common warning signs and predictors of suicide include:

  • Communication to others of intent to commit suicide
  • History of previous suicide attempts
  • Engaging in self destructive behaviors, e.g. driving recklessly
  • Increasing inability to see any solutions to current problems other than ending one’s life
  • Behaving in an increasingly upset and agitated manner
  • Increase in feelings and expressions of self-hate and self-blame
  • Putting one’s affairs and estate in order; giving away prized possessions
  • Unusual expressions of “good-bye” to friends and loved ones
  • Possession and/or securing of firearms or other lethal means to end one’s life
  • Significant personal loss – job, status, self image, loved one
  • Personal stressors – family problems; illness; financial reversal
  • Severe depression – especially when combined with alcohol abuse
  • Alcohol and other drug abuse
  • Irrational statements or thought patterns that indicate being out of touch with reality – especially in combination with substance abuse
  • Social isolation and lack of friends, family & other social support
  • History of brain injury or disorder

Work-related behaviors that could foretell suicide include:

  • Marked decrease in productivity, attendance, or uncharacteristic lack of responsibility
  • Safety violations or dangerous, personally risky behaviors
  • Isolation from the workgroup
  • Noteworthy out-of-balance identification with current job or organization as “my life”
  • Putting work affairs in “final order” unusual to the actual circumstances
  • Excessive self-blame or criticism

Steps for managing potential volatility and harm 

The commonly experienced stress reactions to downsizing are primarily lessened by employers providing recognized career-transition support (as mentioned above) for those displaced.  How messages are delivered is very important.  Employees are keenly sensitive to their anxieties being regarded with respect, no matter how understandable the cutbacks are from a business standpoint.  Leaders need to communicate promptly with information updates, listen patiently and responsively to concerns, and do what is possible to address understandable group and individual needs.

Assume what is dignified treatment for the general workforce will help ameliorate the anger and acting out of anyone contemplating revenge, minor or major.  If these measures do not help assuage such individuals, regard it as evidence that different approaches and resources are needed for these special cases.

Threat management teams or representatives can take proactive steps to screen for violence and suicide risk prior to any individual job elimination announcements.

  • Scan the lists of employees who will be separated.  Who has shown a tendency to be volatile, display unacceptable levels of anger, or marked despair?
  • Educate managers on warning signs and insist they come forward with concerns about affected employees.
  • Confer with qualified risk assessment resources prior to taking any redeployment action with potentially volatile employees.
  • When indicated, conduct specialized interventions, such as directed EAP referrals, a scripted management or HR meeting with the employee regarding the issues, or an employer-managed professional risk assessment of the individual.
  • If a serious risk of violence emerges, consensus building and planning are in order; legal, security, assessment specialization, and law enforcement involvement may be required.

In spite of the above proactive steps to minimize problems, expect “surprises” on announcement days.  Some anger is inevitable, in spite of lead times and employee awareness of possible bad news.  Promptly support managers who are confronted with volatile reactions.

  • Have HR managers or others with keen “people skills” designated and prepared to step into meetings to assist with heated conversations.
  • Low-key security presence in the area or ready availability is appropriate, to respond to concerns of physical acting out.
  • Remember the important guideline throughout the process: When in doubt, confer. Violence has many causes, is complex, and can be difficult to foresee.