In an era where mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves, addressing the topic of suicide in the workplace remains a critical challenge. The United Kingdom, like many other countries, is grappling with rising concerns about mental health and the need to foster a supportive work environment that encourages open conversations about sensitive issues.
In this article, we will explore the importance of discussing suicide in the workplace, look at essential statistics, discuss how workplace culture impacts employee mental health, identify possible signs of a person struggling with thoughts of suicide, and delve into the many ways we can provide support at an individual and organisational level. In a previous article, we answered the question ‘can workplaces help prevent suicide’ (spoiler: the answer was yes). In essence, this article will explain how, exactly, we go about discussing the sensitive topic of suicide in the workplace.
Suicide is a global concern, affecting individuals from all walks of life, regardless of age, gender, or profession – not to mention the devesting impact on their friends, family, and colleagues. Did you know that approximately 135 people will be significantly affected by every suicide loss? Additionally, roughly 15 of the individuals nearest and dearest are likely to go on and experience thoughts of suicide themselves. When we consider that the number of suicides in the UK in 2021 were recorded as 6,556, we can begin to understand the scale of this issue including the impact on those left behind. To add to these alarming statistics, The Hazards Campaign (2023) estimates that approximately 10% of suicides are work-related making it even more important to address the issue by discussing suicide in the workplace and fostering a culture of understanding, empathy, and support.
A company’s culture significantly influences the mental health of its employees and knowing that the average person will spend one-third of their life at work helps us to understand how workplace environments are so impactful on employee mental health. An unhealthy working environment in which there is excessive stress, a lack of support, or unrealistic expectations can exacerbate existing mental health issues and contribute to the development of new ones. Conversely, a positive and compassionate workplace culture can act as a protective factor against mental health challenges. According to a report by Mental Health First Aid England (2022), employees who feel supported at work are more likely to be productive, engaged and satisfied.
It’s crucial to be aware of signs that someone might be struggling with thoughts of suicide. Signs can be psychological, physical, or behavioural, with the last often presenting in workplaces as disciplinary issues, or at other times, a dedicated work ethic. It’s important to notice changes in a person and to explore the reasons behind these. When thinking about spotting signs of suicide, it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel in workplaces. We can utilise ordinary management procedures such as return to work meetings, one-to-ones, and performance reviews to routinely screen for signs of suicide as well as signs of mental ill-health more generally.
Psychological signs are those that arise in the mind and might include feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, a dramatic change in personality or mood, or a sudden unexplained ‘recovery’. Physical signs relate to the body as opposed to the mind and might include a dramatic change in appearance or a change in eating or sleeping habits. Finally, behavioural signs relate to the things a person may do – or indeed may stop doing – such as withdrawing from loved ones, engaging in potentially dangerous behaviour such as driving recklessly or increasing their use of drugs or alcohol, a decline in work performance, or overworking – taking on too many tasks or working longs hours. A person with thoughts of suicide may also talk about death, suicide or dying, or begin preparing – saying goodbye, putting affairs in order, or looking for the means with which to suicide.
Both individuals and organisations have vital roles to play in creating a workplace environment that addresses sensitive topics like suicide. Individuals can take the time to regularly check in with their colleagues, remain alert to possible signs of suicide, and show genuine care and support. Individual employees can also help combat the stigma associated with poor mental health and suicide by being willing to engage in non-judgemental conversations about mental health with their colleagues. It’s important for individuals to pay attention to their colleagues’ concerns, and if they express distress, take their feelings seriously and encourage them to seek help by familiarising themselves with local, national and workplace resources available to provide support.
The most powerful action an individual can take if they are concerned about a colleague experiencing thoughts of suicide is to ask them clearly and directly if they are thinking about ending their life. Contrary to popular belief, asking a person directly about their suicidal feelings reduces their emotional distress and acts as a deterrent – it does not encourage a person to kill themselves. By asking openly, we allow the person experiencing the pain to talk about their problems, which can help them feel less lonely, isolated, and even relieved.
On an organisational level, training, wellness programs, anti-stigma campaigns, and policy support can also aid the addressing of sensitive topics and the discussion of suicide in the workplace. Providing comprehensive mental health training to managers and employees, Mental Health First Aid or Suicide First Aid training, for instance, equips individuals with the skills and confidence to offer initial support to someone struggling, and empowers individuals to take the vital action of asking about thoughts of suicide. Developing wellness initiatives that promote mental wellbeing, such as mindfulness sessions, access to therapeutic services, and flexible working arrangements will all contribute towards the company culture. Similarly, campaigns that challenge the stigma surrounding mental health and encourage open dialogue in the workplace, as well as clear policies that emphasise confidentiality, non-discrimination, and support for employees seeking help are all important.
Addressing suicide in the workplace is a complex but essential task that requires a multi-pronged approach. By acknowledging the importance of discussing mental health and suicide openly, understanding the impact of workplace culture on employees, recognising the signs of a person struggling with thoughts of suicide, and providing effective support at an individual and organisational level we can foster a caring work environment where employees feel understood and supported.
Remember, most people who are at risk feel suicidal only for a brief period in their lives. With proper assistance and support they will probably never feel suicidal again.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to a mental health professional or a helpline – you deserve support and things can get better. In the UK, you can contact the Samaritans at 116 123.
Olivia has a professional history in community mental health settings. For the last 5 years, she has worked for the South East Coast Ambulance Service. She also work as a Crisis Volunteer for Shout - the crisis text line service.
Olivia has dealt with mental health issues over the past decade and received a personality disorder diagnosis in her early 20's. Olivia talks openly about her first hand experiences of suicidal thoughts, self-harm and alcohol misuse. Through her mental health business, Changing minds, her mission is to empower people with the skills and knowledge to support their mental health.