Workers Who Self-Harm: Should HR Play a Role?

Cuts and bruises may not affect job performance but could distress co-workers

By Susan Milligan Apr 16, 2014
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If you watched a light fixture fall on an employee, tearing a gash in her head, you’d rush to her side, try to stop the bleeding and probably call 911.

But what would you do if a worker’s injuries were self-inflicted?

Self-harming includes cutting, burning and other self-mutilating behavior that is not suicidal in nature. It can be associated with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and low self-esteem. And while it may not be immediately visible, nor affect job performance, it can be distressing or distracting for co-workers who discover it. The stigma attached to the behavior can make it hard for self-harmers to seek help, specialists note.

So should HR managers step in to assist?

Maybe, experts advise, but it should be done carefully.

“Not only do you have that person’s best interests [to consider], you also have to keep in mind the best interests of the people around them,” said Michelle Tenzyk, a 25-year human resources veteran and president of the New York City-based executive coaching firm East Tenth Group. “With self-harm, people around that person get impacted, too.”

  • Some telltale signs that an employee is self-harming are: 
  • Scars, such as from burns or cuts.
  • Fresh cuts, scratches or other wounds.
  • Bruises.
  • Hair loss or bald spots.
  • Broken bones.
  • Spending a great deal of time alone.
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants even in hot weather.
  • Claiming to have frequent accidents or mishaps.

Raising the Issue

Their work may not suffer, since self-harmers are typically perfectionists and overachievers, said Karen Conterio, CEO of SAFE Alternatives, a research and support group for self-harmers. She said managers should arrange a private meeting with the suspected self-harmer and raise the issue in a nonjudgmental manner. “The supervisor might say,

‘Maybe this isn’t my place, but I’ve noticed x, y and z, and was wondering if you need assistance.’ The person might get really defensive—part of it is a lot of lights going off in the person’s head—and they may get really mad. They may also be relieved,” Conterio said.

If the individual denies self-harming, the manager can ask how he or she plans to respond when co-workers start noticing scars, Conterio advised. If the employee continues to push back, the manager can simply tell the worker where he can get help if he wants it.

Compliance Matters

Legally, managers have a lot to consider when it comes to self-harmers.

“A general rule is to remain uninvolved in an employee’s life,” said Sandy Girifalco, a Philadelphia labor lawyer. “What the employer should care about is the employee performing the job.”

There is case law indicating that if an employer has reason to believe a medical condition exists, the company is obligated to talk to the worker about the Family and Medical Leave Act, Girifalco added.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are not allowed to ask about disabilities, including psychiatric ones, prior to employment, noted Justine Lisser, spokeswoman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If private behavior isn’t affecting job performance, it’s not appropriate for a manager to tell a worker to call the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) any more than it would be to tell a person with a limp to go to physical therapy, she said. But nothing prevents a manager from offering the EAP as a resource, as long as participation is voluntary and not a condition of continued employment, Lisser said.

Workers’ compensation rules differ by state, but federal laws say self-inflicted ailments are not covered by workers’ comp, said Gregory Lois, a New York City-based employment lawyer.

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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