Not everyone will view suicide as a workplace issue, however the average person will spend one-third of their life at work. That’s roughly 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, and the quality of our working lives has a direct impact on our overall health. Work can provide us with a sense of belonging, give us purpose and meaning, and provide social cohesion.
Conversely, an unhealthy working environment can contribute to poor mental health and wellbeing – a well-known risk factor for suicide. Suicide prevention in the workplace is everybody’s business; each and every one of us contribute to the culture of an organisation. Whether you are a CEO, HR professional, line manager or work on the ‘shop floor’ you can all help to prevent suicide.
In 2021 there were 5,583 reported suicides in the UK. Unlike France, Japan and the United States, the UK do not record workplace-related suicides. A suicide is considered a private and individual occurrence in the UK even if it occurs in the workplace itself. If you break an arm because of unsafe working conditions, employers are legally obliged to report it to the UK regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for investigation.
However, a suicide does not need to be reported to anyone other than the coroner. The Hazards Campaign estimate that approximately 10% of suicides are work-related, but due to the UK’s reporting procedure this is widely believed to be a huge underestimation.
Aside from the legal duty which means employers must take care of employees and provide a safe working environment, there is a strong moral and ethical responsibility to supporting employee health and wellbeing. With thoughts of suicide statistically more likely to be experienced by a person than a heart attack, it begs the question as to why more pressure is not imposed on employers to provide training in this area.
Suicide is rarely down to a single cause or factor; it is a complex phenomenon that is influenced by several overlapping factors. Such workplace factors include, but are not limited to, bullying, discrimination, job insecurity, stress, burnout, poor working relationships, and a poor working environment. Knowing such factors exist in many organisational settings raises the argument that employers have a responsibility to make improvements.
I have lived experience of suicide and was granted a reasonable adjustment by my previous employer which was instrumental in my recovery. Here’s some details about my experience:
“Like many of us, I’ve always found the Winter season to have a negative impact on my wellbeing, however this was also always the season I found myself consumed by thoughts of suicide, and four years running, attempting to end my life.”
“After a significant period of sickness and heading towards dismissal, my manager utilised a direct but compassionate approach which allowed me to speak openly, without fear of repercussion, about my mental illness.”
“Next, she suggested a flexible working arrangement whereby I would take leave from work at the time of year I found most challenging. The first year we implemented this adjustment it changed by life; I have not attempted suicide since.”
Many people find it incredibly uncomfortable to talk about sensitive subjects, however this creates misconceptions and fuels the stigma surrounding suicide. In order for workplaces to help prevent suicide they must foster an open culture, promote inclusion, and provide good people management.
Fostering an open culture within a workplace where all employees can talk openly about mental health issues has to be one of the top strategies organisations can take to help prevent suicide. Whether that be by inviting guest speakers to talk about their experience of suicide, encouraging senior leaders to talk more about their mental health, or running initiatives on key awareness days – all will contribute to the culture we seek.
Most organisations offer Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) and talking therapies. However, these are reactively focused on supporting people already experiencing issues. Deloitte’s latest report (2022) found a five times return on investment for employers investing in proactive initiatives compared with a 3.4 times return on reactive ones.
An inclusive culture with healthy relationships can hugely enhance mental health in the workplace. Unfair treatment at work, such as bullying, harassment or discrimination, can have a profoundly negative impact on people psychologically. Organisations should strive for a workplace culture whereby this behaviour is known to be unacceptable and there are clear procedures in place for reporting and managing such instances.
People managers need to be competent and confident in having sensitive and supportive conversations about difficult topics. Managers should not be expected to counsel or solve employee struggles but rather monitor changes in behaviour and provide employees with information, support, and resources. One action for leaders of UK organisations to consider is signing The Mental Health at Work Commitment, a public declaration of the business’ prioritisation of workplace mental health. Upskilling managers in training such as Mental Health First Aid and Suicide First Aid is another way of providing them with the skills and confidence they will require to discuss suicide.
Workplaces can help prevent suicide by making mental health a higher organisation priority. This includes taking an approach to mental health and wellbeing that directly addresses the risk of suicide and incorporates a prevention strategy which is communicated to all employees. And, if saving lives isn’t enough, addressing wellbeing at work increases productivity by as much as 12%!
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.