Suicide — a taboo subject in the workplace?
When work is poorly organized or when workplace risks are not managed, work can raise suicide risk in some workers.
According to the World Health Organisation, almost 1 million people die from suicide every year. For every person who dies from suicide, twenty more make an attempt. The highest rates of suicide occur during our working lives — peaking in the late 40s. Sadly, suicide is also the fourth leading cause of death among 15–19-year-olds, which means people who are just starting out on their working lives are amongst those at highest risk. The COVID-19 pandemic added to increased stress, mental health issues, suicidal ideation, attempts, and suicide deaths and with this is mind, workplaces today play a more critical role than ever in suicide prevention.
Every employer has a duty of care to its workers and to ensure their health, safety and welfare. Whilst suicides in the workplace are not, in themselves, RIDDOR reportable, all suicides will result in a Coroner’s inquest being held to investigate the circumstances of the death and it is open to a Coroner to refer the matter to the Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”), particularly if there are concerns that there is a risk of future similar deaths occurring.
The HSE have already launched their Working Minds Campaign which has led to a lot of additional resource being made available for employers on the HSE’s website, but some recent work-related suicide tragedies have raised questions about whether such cases should be investigated by the HSE. This includes the death of a headteacher from suicide following an OFTSED inspection. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that at some point in the future we will follow the example of France, where if a person takes their own life in the workplace, it is investigated as a workplace suicide and the burden of proof is on the employer to show that it was not work related.
Whilst in the UK there is no formal data collection process for work related suicide (and therefore the true figures surrounding such deaths are unknown), indications are that certain occupational groups are deemed to be at a higher risk of suicide, including teachers, doctors, nurses, vets and agricultural workers. For men, low skilled labourers were found to be three times more at risk of suicide than the average male and for women, teachers were found to be a 42 percent above the average risk.
It is undeniably tragic that anyone in our workplace might consider, let alone follow through with, taking their own life. Tragic for them as an individual that they have got to the point where they can see no other alternative but to end their life, but also for those they leave behind, profoundly affected for the rest of their lives. After many suicides, family members, friends, work colleagues (at all levels) are left struggling with guilt and unanswered questions about what they could, or should have done to help, and some may experience depression or suicidal thoughts themselves.
The good news is that experts tell us that most suicides are preventable with appropriate interventions. As such, there is no better time than right now for employers to take stock of the policies and measures they have in place to prevent or tackle any work-related risks to worker’s physical and mental health, that could potentially lead to suicidal ideation, intent and ultimately behaviour. Many suicides are impulsive moments of crisis associated with significant life events. This could be people struggling with pre-existing mental health conditions (that an employer is often not aware of), or a relationship breakdown, financial problems or simply work pressures. Work-related factors may contribute to feelings of humiliation or isolation. An issue or combination of issues such as job insecurity, discrimination, bullying or simply work stressors may play their part in people becoming suicidal and need tackling at source. Indeed, many of these workplace factors interact with non-workplace factors to further increase suicide risk.
In short, the effects of work on suicide are complex. Work can be protective against suicide as a source of personal satisfaction and meaning, interpersonal contacts, and financial security. However, when work is poorly organized or when workplace risks are not managed, work can raise suicide risk in some workers.
Question: So what can an employer do to manage the risks
Answer: Create a workplace that serves as a Suicide Education, Prevention and Intervention Site.
It is important for employers and others in positions of responsibility in the workplace to put in place measures to promote the good mental health of their employees, and to have a plan for supporting employees and colleagues with mental health conditions or who may be at risk of suicide. Workers spend a significant amount of time at work and co-workers and supervisors often notice important changes in thoughts or behaviours that may be signals for increased suicide risk. Many workplaces are on board with establishing structures and resources to improve worker mental health and well-being, but many are reticent to consider and include suicide prevention in their programming.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to suicide prevention in the workplace, as what works and what is needed for one occupation or industry may not be applicable to another, and some occupations pose more challenges and/or risks than others. However, some general tips to consider are as follows:
- Organise training or workshops for employees to increase awareness (and reduce stigma) about suicide prevention, and how to recognise warning signs.
- Develop and share with employees a set of comprehensive policies and procedures that promote mental health wellbeing, help employees at risk or in crisis, and thereby reduce stigma around mental health.
- Organise specialized suicide prevention training for the workplace’s employee assistance programme (“EAP”) providers and/or HR staff.
- The responsibility to lend a listening ear often falls on your line managers, so make sure they are prepared, adequately trained so they know how to respond (and what to say) and ensure they are supported in taking on this vitally important role.
- Create adequate signposting to ensure all staff know what resources are available for support and/or treatment for problems related to suicide, both within the organisation and in the local community. Ensure mental health emergency contact information is placed throughout the workplace.
- Design and implement a plan for how to sensitively manage and communicate the suicide or suicide attempt of an employee in a way that minimises further distress. Measures should include the availability of trained health workers and support services for staff, as well as educating those staff members who will be involved in the process.
- Create a work environment that values its employees and promotes respect, in which colleagues feel comfortable talking about problems that have an impact on their ability to do their job effectively and supporting each other during difficult times.
- Encourage open conversations about mental health. Talking about mental health and stress within teams will help reduce or remove any stigma attached to mental health issues and provide a more supportive, understanding environment.
- Identify and reduce work-related stressors which can negatively impact mental health.
- Keep in touch with workers who are working from home.
- Tackle potential mental health triggers such as bullying, harassment and discrimination.
- Consider the impact of change, redundancies and job security.
- Consider work occurrences that are likely to be additionally stressful for workers, such as introducing changes (big or small); reorganisation (especially if it might lead to job losses); disciplinary action.
- Whilst trying to prevent or reduce stress caused by work factors, also be aware of the impact of non-work factors and, where possible, try to help people through these. Some examples include being flexible with working hours, allowing workers time for counselling, medical appointments etc, directing workers to appropriate help, such as their GP or an EAP, or other mental health support services.
Support workers who may be suicidal
If you think someone may be suicidal, encourage them to seek help from their GP, EAP, bespoke mental health support services such as the Samaritans, or to talk to a trusted friend or family member. Ask how you can help and support them if they start to exhibit symptoms, for example give them time, put them in a separate room or call a named person.
Signs that someone is struggling include:
- Changes in mood and behaviour, such as restlessness, irritability, impulsivity, depressed mood, recklessness or aggression.
- Decrease in work performance or difficulty completing tasks.
- Withdrawal from colleagues, and/or no longer wanting to mix socially.
- Neglecting themselves, showering less, or caring less about their personal appearance.
- Increased alcohol or drug consumption and/or abuse.
- Talking about suicide or wanting to die in a vague or joking way, or talking about feelings of isolation, loneliness, hopelessness.
- Speaking about arranging end-of-life personal affairs such as making a will or giving away their possessions.
- Saying goodbye to people as if they won’t see them again.
Support workers after an incident
If someone takes their own life, consider the impact on their colleagues, particularly if the suicide happens at work. Support your staff, give them the opportunity to seek help through your EAP, occupational health provider or counselling and to talk about what has happened.
Check that other workers are not feeling the same or under pressure. Make staff aware of the support available if they are having similar thoughts.
Use the event as an opportunity to review your risk assessment for work-related stress and mental health.
Remember, workers are an employer’s most valuable asset and creating a culture that prioritises good mental and physical health is both humane and good for business, as it can enhance workforce productivity.
Never underestimate the difference one person can make to another person going through mental health struggles. It could be as simple as initiating a conversation when you don’t “need” to, but just because you care – the impact of someone caring enough to do/say/ask something, when it wasn’t a requirement, is often more than any of us realise and could be just enough to bring someone back from the brink.
In a nutshell, your proactive actions as an employer around suicide prevention and awareness could significantly improve the lives of all your workers (from top to bottom in the organisation) and may even save a life. Surely that is time and effort well spent?