In today’s fast-paced and competitive working environments, employees face many challenges, both personal and professional. Among these challenges, is the sensitive and often misunderstood issue of self-harm.

Self-harm often remains hidden behind closed doors thus increasing fear of the topic and perpetuating false stereotypes and misconceptions. This article aims to shed light on the complex issue of self-harm in professional settings, exploring its root causes, warning signs and the critical role employers and colleagues play in fostering supportive working environments.

Self-harm, also known as self-injury, is the act of causing harm to oneself usually as a coping mechanism for emotional pain or stress. While the most known form of self-harm is cutting, it is essential to understand that self-harm can extend beyond physical acts and can manifest through emotional self-neglect, detrimental lifestyle choices and destructive behaviour patterns. It is also crucial to recognise that, whilst there are links between the two, self-harm is not a suicide attempt. Self-harm is also not a cry for attention but rather an attempt to cope with deep-rooted emotional distress.

The prevalence of self-harm in the workplace may be underestimated due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. However, studies have shown that a significant number of employees struggle with self-harm silently. In a survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation in 2019, nearly 20% of respondents admitted to self-harming at some point in their lives. While this data does not solely pertain to the workplace, it does highlight the significance of the issue in society as a whole.

To effectively address self-harm in the workplace it’s important to understand the underlying causes and triggers. Some contributing factors may include psychological issues such as depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions, or unresolved past trauma. The pressure to perform, fear of failure, poor working relationships and overwhelming workloads can exacerbate these emotional challenges. Workplace bullying and harassment as well as feeling isolated or unsupported at work can also have severe emotional consequences, leading some individuals to self-harm as an outlet for their distress. The pressures of work, coupled with personal challenges and expectations, can create a perfect storm for individuals to resort to self-harm as a coping mechanism.

Identifying self-harming behaviour in the workplace is essential to offer timely support. Although self-harm is often hidden, some signs that may indicate a colleague or employee is struggling include frequent or unexplained injuries, consistently wearing clothing that is inappropriate for the weather, an unwillingness to discuss personal or emotional matters, changes in behaviour such as increased irritability, mood swings, or withdrawal from activities they previously enjoyed, and changes in work performance.

Organisations play a pivotal role in promoting supportive working environments that address mental health concerns, including self-harm. Promoting such environments start with encouraging open dialogue about mental health. Employers can organise workshops, training courses, and awareness campaigns that can help employees understand and recognise self-harm, destigmatise mental health issues and encourage employees to seek help when needed. Introducing comprehensive mental health programs, workplace strategies and employee assistance programmes can also provide resources and professional support for individuals facing emotional distress, including those who may resort to self-harm. Flexible working arrangements, such as remote work options or flexible working hours, may also help employees cope with their emotional struggles while maintaining their productivity and overall wellbeing. Finally, training managers, supervisors, and HR personnel to recognise signs of self-harm and general distress can ensure early intervention and allow them to respond supportively and compassionately when an employee is struggling.

If it is suspected that a colleague or employee is engaging in self-harm, it’s essential to approach the situation with care and empathy. Active listening and empathetic communication are essential components of this process. Offer a listening ear and validate their feelings without judgement – note it is possible to validate a person’s feelings without necessarily validating their behaviour. Managers and colleagues must refrain from making assumptions, expressing criticism, or giving ultimatums. Never threaten or pressure an individual to stop self-harming. Instead, focus on understanding their feelings, emotions, and experiences. As outlined by Dr Philip Thomas, ‘for many people self-harm is an essential coping mechanism, and we have no right to demand that people stop it, unless we have something better to offer them’.

Respect for confidentiality is also paramount when responding to self-harm cases; ensure that information is shared on a need-to-know basis to protect the employee’s privacy and prevent gossip or unnecessary attention. While providing empathetic support is essential, it is equally crucial to encourage the individual to seek professional help. Suggest visiting their GP or seeking support from a therapist, counsellor or other mental health professional who can provide appropriate guidance and support. Remember to continue to check in on the individual regularly to show your ongoing support and concern.

In severe cases, self-harm episodes may require immediate intervention. Employers should develop procedures and referral pathways to address such situations swiftly and effectively. These should involve identifying key personnel who can provide immediate assistance, establishing communication channels, and ensuring that employees are aware of the available resources for support.

Understanding self-harm in the workplace requires a compassionate and holistic approach. By understanding the root causes, recognising the warning signs, and promoting a supportive culture, organisations can create a safe environment that empowers employees to seek help and heal from their emotional struggles. Remember, everyone has a role to play in fostering a compassionate workplace that champions mental health. Together, we can combat the silent struggle of self-harm, break the stigma, and create workplaces that provide a sense of community and understanding for all employees.

Olivia-Louise Hamilton
Founding Director at Changing Minds | + posts

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.