Workplace-related suicide can have several different motivations. The recent shooting at a Molson Coors plant in Milwaukee may have been fuelled by racism against the perpetrator. (Shutterstock)

Understanding work-related suicide after the Molson Coors shooting

On Feb. 26, 2020, Anthony Ferrill, a 51-year old employee of Molson Coors, went on a shooting rampage at the plant in Milwaukee, Wis., while wearing his Molson Coors uniform.

He took the lives of five co-workers before killing himself.

Anthony Ferrill, the man police say killed five people at the Molson Coors brewery complex in Milwaukee on Feb. 26, 2020. (Courtesy of the Ferrill family via AP)

The challenge now is to try to understand why he chose to take the lives of others, and why he chose to take his own life as his last act. Some of his co-workers have said Ferrill was a target of racism at his workplace.

In our study, we interviewed friends and relatives of 16 people who died by suicide to understand how work and career influences suicide. We found that those who died by suicide had different motives depending on their life stage, whether it was early-career, mid-career or late-career.

For those like Ferrill, who took their lives in mid-career, we saw that the factors that contributed to workers taking their own lives were feelings of despair and powerlessness stemming from one’s career being threatened, feeling trapped in unsatisfying jobs or career failure.

Early-career suicides instead were characterized by people feeling forced to pursue careers that were not meaningful to them.

Late-career suicides were characterized by loss of status and power in retirement work.

Despair, powerlessness

It may be that the work environment at Molson Coors had somehow contributed to Ferrill experiencing a sense of despair or powerlessness at work. Preliminary evidence suggests that Ferrill had experienced continuous racism at Molson Coors and had filed a lawsuit against the company.

Experiencing racism or repeated bullying at work could contribute to a toxic work environment, inducing a sense of powerlessness and dread, similar to that experienced by those in our study. Despite police denials that racism was a factor in the shooting, it’s an avenue that will need to be further explored.

Police are shown outside the Molson Coors Brewing Co. in Milwaukee after reports of the shooting. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

There have been other isolated incidents in which workers responded to being terminated by going on shooting rampages. This happened in 2019 in Aurora, Ill., when a man went on a shooting rampage at a manufacturing company after learning he’d been fired. That means it’s important to understand whether Ferrill was being disciplined or terminated to understand if either situation may have been a factor.

Finally, in addition to work and career influences, suicide has been understood to also be impacted by factors outside of work such as family breakdown and divorce, mental health and overall quality of life.

That means it’s often impossible to attribute a reason for suicide solely on work-related factors. It will be important to understand whether Ferrill was experiencing life challenges outside of work, or whether he may have suffered from some form of mental illness.

Work contributed to despair?

However, this situation — where an employee chose to put on his uniform, go to work, open fire and kill co-workers before taking his own life — suggests that in addition to non-work factors, work-related issues may have contributed to the despair or powerlessness experienced by this worker.

It’s important to note that death by suicide is relatively rare. There are 11 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people annually in the United States and 10.5 deaths per 100,000 in Canada. However, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women.


Read more: Is suicide contagious?


Tragic events like these highlight the direct and indirect impact to the family members and co-workers of all six of these lost lives. All workers at Molson Coors are likely experiencing a sense of fear and loss following the shooting.

This event should provide all employers, not just Molson Coors, pause to reflect on whether there are work conditions or circumstances that negatively impact workers. This is a time to support existing workers and the families of all the lost workers. It’s also a time to rebuild by addressing any work-related issues that may have contributed to the tragedy.

While it is extremely rare for workers to respond to negative work circumstances with murder-suicide, the extent to which employers can create positive work environments and limit the negative impacts to workers should help shield workers and employers from such tragedies.

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