Suicide Awareness in the Workplace

How would you respond if you found out your colleague was hit by a bus? Would you send flowers? Call them? Reach out to their family? What if you found out your colleague jumped in front of the bus…Would this change how you reacted? You might be surprised since no one suspected this co-worker was considering suicide. Though, it is unsurprising that they did not share with anyone their intentions or that they were feeling unwell. The stigma around mental illness in the workplace quiets the volume on important conversations that could reveal whether someone is in danger. 

We have talked about the cost of mental illnesses to workplace productivity and we have discussed some of the ways we can support mental health in our workplaces. Talking about mental illness and creating a safe environment where workers are not afraid to seek support are approaches that greatly reduce stigma and promote mental health awareness. Something we discuss less frequently in our workplaces is suicide. The sensitive nature of this topic and the lack of knowledge we have about it contribute to the discomfort we feel when talking about suicide. Even newspaper articles fail to focus on factors that contribute to suicide and prefer to report on details such as methods. So, it is understandable why it might be difficult to get informed.

Workplace Suicide Research

Tiesman, Konda, Hartley, Menendez, Ridenour, and Hendricks (2014) conducted a study that analyzed trends in workplace suicides in the US to address the lack of literature on this topic. Their research yielded several interesting findings:

  • Highest workplace suicide rates (in order) were occupations in:
    • Protective service occupations
    • Farming, fishing, and forestry, and
    • Installation, maintenance and repair
    • Transportation and material moving occupations
    • Management occupations, business, and financial occupations
    • Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations
  • Rates were considerably higher for men than for women
  • Risk of suicide was pronounced amongst racial minorities
  • Suicide rates increased with age

In their literature review, the researchers cited many factors that may help explain the rates of suicide in the aforementioned occupations:

  • Access to weapons and other lethal methods
  • High stress work situations
  • Shift-work
  • Job insecurity
  • Lack of work-life balance
  • Isolation
  • Physical illness
  • Pesticide exposure
  • Solvent exposure
  • Lack of access to mental health support
  • Stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment

Take-Home Messages (Take-to-Work Messages?)

We cannot turn a blind eye to these findings if we work or employ in industries other than those mentioned. Certain factors listed above may be present in every workplace. The points about lack of mental health support and stigma associated with accessing treatment stand out to us as factors that affect every workplace. Individuals are put at risk of suicide when they do not have access to mental health support or when they are afraid to seek this type of help to avoid stigma. These are factors that employers can influence.

With regards to accessible mental health support, workplaces with services such as employee assistance programs (EAP) need to strongly communicate the availability of these services to employees. In the absence of such services, it is in the employer’s best interest to seek out supports in the community that employees can access or take the initiative to start providing these services. Provisions such as offering benefits or EAP may seem costly, but they buffer more costly consequences such as absenteeism and presenteeism. Taking care of mental health in the workplace may be as simple as organizing mental health lunch and learn sessions for staff, hosting seminars on topics that relate to mental wellness such as healthy eating, or taking ten minutes out of the work schedule to engage in simple group exercises such as stretching or doing a set of relaxing yoga positions.

When we keep the conversation going about mental health instead of treating it like a taboo, we reduce the stigma against mental illness. Let’s make sure we have an open door policy in place at work, so that no conversations related to mental health are swept under the rug. However, letting your employees know that you are there to listen may not be enough to break the barrier to communication. Consider asking employees in leadership/management roles who have personal experience with mental illness to share their stories with the rest of the staff, if they feel comfortable. Promote the use of sensitive language by modeling it yourself. Discourage the use of phrases that may not be helpful to someone with a mental illness such as “just suck it up” or talking about mental illness as if it is an excuse. Think about offering accommodations such as allowing employees to work from home or to come into the office earlier if that is when they are feeling their best. Just like physical illness, mental illness also creates a barrier to productive tasks and requires professional attention.

What is your workplace doing to promote mental health and raise awareness about suicide? As mental health awareness week is fast approaching, consider some of the ideas above to open the conversation in your workplace. Contact Us if you have any questions or for more information.