World Suicide Day – How Employers Can Assist in the Prevention of Workplace Suicide

10 September 2021

To mark World Suicide Prevention Day today, we are grateful to be able to share this insightful piece from Caleb Rooke who is reaching the final stages of his MSc in Human Resource Management at Cardiff University. The article deals with how employers can assist colleagues with their mental health and how to approach the often stigmatised and challenging subject of suicide in the workplace.

Every year on September 10th, World Suicide Prevention Day is observed to raise awareness of yet another important public health concern. The event invites individuals all around the world to interact with one another and raise awareness of suicide prevention methods. This year’s theme is “Creating Action Through Hope,” which seeks to give individuals the courage to interact with the complexities of hope. Given the gloomy numerous months of lockdowns to address the global coronavirus threat, this seems apt.

Suicide has been a long-standing companion of the human experience. A complex phenomenon that has captivated philosophers, theologians, physicians, sociologists, and artists throughout history; French philosopher Albert Camus termed it “the only serious philosophical issue” in his book The Myth of Sisyphus.

According to the World Health Organisation, every year around 800,000 individuals take their own life, that’s one every 40 seconds. And that number is steadily increasing.

Suicide rates are on the rise in the UK, with working-age males aged 40 to 54 experiencing the greatest rates. Low-skilled professions, in particular, construction workers have the highest rates for males and care workers have the highest rates for women. Meanwhile, suicide prevention organisations, professional associations, and trade unions all point to a workplace mental health crisis. According to the government-commissioned report ‘Thriving at Work’, there are more people with mental health problems at work than ever before, and at a far higher rate than physical health conditions.

Suicide carries a stigma that inhibits individuals from seeking assistance when they are in urgent need, and others from providing support when they want to. Though it might feel uncomfortable and difficult, going beyond the normal “Are you okay?” to asking, “Are you feeling suicidal?”, can actually save a life.

In reality, the motivation for suicide is complex with explanations that fail to adequately explain or address the conditions that led to the individual’s death. Growing research into suicide prevention has identified that successful prevention and intervention, lies with multiple proactive initiatives. This means that employers can play a pivotal role in prevention.

Prevention – How can you assist your employees with their mental health?

On average, we spend around one-third of our lives at work. As a result, for all of us, our workplace families and wider network of colleagues is a true cornerstone of mental health assistance. It’s uncomfortable to discuss mental health and suicide, and far more challenging to initiate that conversation. However, it is important to be prepared for these exchanges, and there is a myriad of things you can do to aid you when they occur:

  1. Education is key! – Understand the most prevalent indicators of mental illness or distress, as well as how to identify them in your team. BUPA has compiled a list of early warning indicators that someone may be struggling or suffering with their mental health. It’s also critical that managers receive some suicide awareness training. If you’re having trouble getting started or your organisation cannot provide training, the Zero Suicide Alliance offers a free e-learning tool that’s great for removing stigma and fostering open dialogues.
  2. Having those conversations and active listening – Colleagues and line managers provide an essential social and emotional network based on similar experiences, which is a critical step in reducing suicide stigma. Whether you’re working remote, in an office, or in transport, make sure to have regular planned check-ins with your team. Asking them how they are doing over their work goals and progress should be the focus of the conversation. If you’ve observed any indicators that they could be dealing with a mental health problem, start the conversation by expressing your worry for them. Make time to listen if a member of your team wants to chat about how they are feeling/coping. Allow them the ability to express themselves in a non-judgemental and safe setting. It is also important to reiterate that any conversations are confidential and will not affect their position at work.
  3. Know how your organisation can support employees – Many organisations now provide a range of ‘benefits’ that might help employees manage their mental health. Some provide services such as occupational health, in-house counselling, or private healthcare that incorporates counselling, with the goal of offering confidential talks to help those who are struggling. Most businesses have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which typically provides access to a discreet phone counselling service that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a range of concerns. Inquire about your HR department’s wellness programmes and suggest that they make the rest of the company aware of them.
  4. Flexible working – Due to the pandemic, many of us learnt to adapt to working from our traditional office setting to remote working in our bedrooms. While some of us adjusted seamlessly and benefitted from the work/life balance it brought, others may have felt alone, which can have a detrimental influence on mental health. Flexible, hybrid working is going to become crucial in the future. Prioritise those who feel alone working from home if it is within guidelines, safe, and practical to bring them back to the office. And, if we ever are all back together in the office, be more accommodating to individuals who find working from home to be beneficial to their mental health.
  5. Top-down approach – Starting from the top down is a great strategy to combat stigma and establish an open workplace atmosphere. More executives and CEOs need to show leadership and set an example for employees who are having issues. Board level members should take more interest in ensuring that action plans are in place to address wellbeing and mental health in the workplace, which can foster a caring environment for their employees. Business in the Community have developed an amazing toolkit, intended to assist organisations develop a strategy to minimise the risk of suicide in the workplace. Additionally, it helps develop confidence for leaders and managers to open a dialogue about the most difficult subject at work, suicide. The truth is that your leadership has the potential to save a life.

Postvention – What can you do to help a grieving employee?

It is believed that for every person who takes their own life, up to 135 individuals are directly touched – a tremendous ripple effect. This translates to up to 108 million individuals being affected each year. It’s also true that people who have been affected are more prone to have suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide.

Suicide bereavement is a painful process that typically lasts longer than other types of loss, with long-term repercussions that might last for years. We are all distinct and grieving does not follow any one particular pattern. Suicide bereavement can be chaotic and differ from the typical mourning process.

For those left in the aftermath of a suicide, measures need to be put in place to assist those who are struggling. ‘Postvention’ relates to those practices and ensures that appropriate and effective support and care is given, as well as lowering the risk of repeat suicide. When developing initiatives and strategies around mental health and wellbeing, it’s important for organisations to consider plans for suicide prevention and postvention.

As previously, suicide has massive connotations usually related to negative stigma. This can cause employees who are affected through suicide to find it difficult to return to work. In this case, what should employers do if one of their staff is affected by suicide?

  1. Active listening – Listening is key. It’s possible that your colleague will not want to tell others at work about what’s going on. Then again, they may want to talk about it. Either way, respect their choice, reach out, and listen. People who have lost a loved one to suicide often appreciate it when colleagues express their condolences, even if it is as simple as stating, “I am very sorry to hear about your loss.” Listen and respect any boundaries. This can also be said for when the workplace has suffered a loss of one of its own. Workplace suicide is often overlooked when it comes to the discussion of suicide and the ramifications can be devastating. Remember, that for many employees the workplace forms part of their social and emotional network, and co-workers can form close bonds. Remember when there is a loss in the workplace to listen to your staff and respect their wishes when it comes to the bereavement process that follows.
  2. Grieving is not textbook – There is never a straight road to recovery when it comes to loss, and suicide is no exception. It’s typical of those who have lost loved ones to suicide to experience a myriad of emotions, which they will not be able to explain. These can be in the form of guilt, fury, bewilderment, dread, grief, as well as physical pain. Work will unavoidably suffer as a result. Your employee’s attention may be diverted for a short amount of time, which is understandable. They may go the opposite way, working themselves to collapse in hopes of avoiding contemplating the events that transpired. It’s essential to give them time off when they need it, as well as to promote and encourage appropriate mourning. Business in the Community have provided a great toolkit to help managers postvention management.
  3. Patience and consideration are essential – As a leader or line manager, keep in mind that your colleague or employee may want time off around the anniversary of the loss – even years after the event. This can also be said for staff who find it difficult to be in the workplace around the time of a colleague’s death. Practice patience and understanding when these difficult times arise.
  4. Stress the importance of help and where to find it – Please make sure employees know where to go for help, whether it’s through workplace support like EAP services or signposting elsewhere. Some smaller organisations may not be able to provide extensive mental health assistance to employees. In this situation, knowing about local or national charities that can help those struggling can be beneficial. The NHS has an excellent list of charities that you can signpost to help people in a variety of situations.

Not everyone will be willing to be open and discuss their mental health – and that’s okay. Remember you are there to support in any capacity needed, but it is important to keep in mind you are not their counsellor.

Using the recommendations above, you should be able to establish a secure atmosphere for them to communicate and focus on providing resources that will help them address how they are feeling with a professional. This will put you in the greatest position to respond to a staff member who is having mental health issues. Please keep in mind that healing them is not your responsibility, you are there to support.

Most importantly, if you are personally struggling, take care of your mental health and use the services you would recommend to your colleagues. Lead by example and protect yourself.