According to the UK government commissioned ‘Thriving at Work’ report, there are more people at work with mental health conditions than ever, and numbers suffering are much higher than physical health conditions. Despite evidence linking work and suicide, these incidents are often seen as individual mental health issues unrelated to the workplace.

The UK lacks data on workplace suicides, and there’s no regulation or oversight specifically for work-related suicides. For example, there is no HSE (Health & Safety Executive) inspection of a workplace following an employee suicide, even if it’s a repeated event. Yet rates are rising. The highest suicide rates are among working-age men of 40 to 54 years old. Construction workers and care workers face the highest risks among men and women, respectively.

Waters & Palmer ‘Work-related suicide: a qualitative analysis of recent cases with recommendations for reform’ (University of Leeds, 2021), points to key work-related factors like unmanageable workloads, workplace bullying, long working hours, and exposure to trauma. At the same time there are contextual issues such as work inspection pressures, change in work status or the pressure to be promoted, difficulties returning to work after extended sick leave, all exacerbated by a lack of management mental health training.

Health and safety regulations do not currently encompass work-related suicides, and there’s a lack of consistent investigations or responses from employers and authorities. The authors of the study say that: “While employers are not responsible for their workers’ mental health, they are responsible for preventing known risks to mental health in the same way as their responsibility in relation to physical health.”

The in-depth study, which delves into a number of real life cases, does offer recommendations into ways to address what is a growing problem. It starts with taking it seriously enough to include in health and safety regulations. The study suggests incorporating suicide into health and safety frameworks like Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR), making it mandatory to report and investigate work-related suicides. As well as serving a public acknowledgement that suicide is a concern and the critical role employers play, it will place a responsibility on the employer to actively work to prevent known suicide risks, comply with stress management standards, and develop suicide prevention plans.

Elements of a plan for employers include a suicide prevention plan, oversight of work levels and pressures, ongoing support for anyone on sickness leave or indicating risk, full independent investigations in the case of suicide, and family liaison and bereavement support.

There is also a role for national health bodies, such as Public Health England. It is essential that we recognise the workplace as a potential site for suicide clusters and include it in preventative health measures. A co-ordinated approach involving various groups is necessary to develop a comprehensive workplace suicide prevention strategy.

Clearly there is an urgent need for a modernised approach to health and safety regulations to better prevent and address work-related suicides.

Broadening crisis risk mitigation strategies, by taking a dual approach

Traditional methods of suicide prevention at work include creating a psychologically safe place where stigma is challenged, with a cultural change to encourage people reach out if they need help. Leaders are encouraged to take responsibility in setting an example in this, with high quality training provided for managers to spot people in crisis.

For those struggling with symptoms, great employers provide access to qualified human support. All of this is valid and provides a good starting point. However, existing support methods leave gaps, often focusing on self care and wellness, with no measurement and little clinical evidence. Employee Assistance Programs provide counselling but have limited and gated access, with the individual needing to ask for help. Crisis point strategies, such as posters and training to ‘spot the signs’ place a heavy burden of responsibility on a manager to pre-identify a crisis and only come in at a late intervention point.

To mitigate the risk further, adding AI-guided support and crisis escalation channels provides a stigma free alternative to accessing help. AI support is discrete, convenient, and available at any moment to help deescalate symptoms if needed. Critis detection may be triggered one of three ways:

  • ○ Digital detection during AI conversation
  • ○ Clinical screenings and daily mood scores
  • ○ User hits SOS button

Clinically validated and effective AI is the bridge between preventative wellbeing and crisis escalation.We know there is an appetite for AI-guided support. In All Worked Up, we asked workers who they’d rather turn to about their mental health. Most employees chose a mental health app with personalised, clinically proven self-help resources over anyone in the workplace, and even their GP.

People are 3x more likely to open up to AI than even a human therapist

Peer reviewed research in Frontiers found that people are three times more likely to open up to AI than even a human therapist. It’s clear we need alternative escalation pathways, as too many are going without, leaving them at risk. AI offers potential to be a solution to what is a growing crisis and one that deserves attention and action – fast. Suicide is absolutely a workplace problem, and needs to be addressed.

Sarah Baldry
Sarah Baldry
VP of People & Marketing at Wysa

Wysa is a leading AI-powered mental health support platform, offering accessible services to individuals and through employer programs. It reduces stigma by providing easy access to professional help, including cognitive behavioural therapy exercises. Proven to decrease depression and anxiety by 31%, Wysa guides users to additional resources like coaching and crisis lines. It has assisted over 6 million people globally through 550 million conversations.