Every suicide is a tragedy: do businesses have a role to play in prevention?

Tomorrow, World Mental Health Day will focus on suicide prevention.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) report that close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. There are indications that for each adult who died by suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide.

According to figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in the UK in 2018 there were 6,507 deaths by suicide; three-quarters of them were men.

Every suicide is a tragedy. But suicide is a preventable form of death, so don’t we all have a part to play in reaching out and offering support to those in need? Given that we spend a significant proportion of our lives in the workplace, do employers also have a responsibility when it comes to the mental well-being of its employees? Could businesses really play a vital role in suicide prevention?

Mental health: a global epidemic

The Mental Health Foundation report that mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide, and that 1 in 6 people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem. The UK’s leading mental health charity, MIND, say that mental health problems affect 1 in 4 people in any given year. Mental ill health is a global epidemic.

Mental health problems are indiscriminate. They impact the rich, the poor, the employed, and the unemployed. Mental illness affects all colours, genders, ages and sizes, across all religions and locations. People at work aren’t exempt, including managers, leaders and business owners. Even highly successful people crash and burn. Suicide touches all walks of life.

Work-related stress

Stress is a reaction to events or experiences in someone’s home life, work life or a combination of both. According to the Government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2018 a staggering 595,000 workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

Work-related stress and mental health problems often go together. Work-related stress can aggravate an existing mental health problem, making it more difficult to control, or it can be a trigger for an underlying problem. Workplace stress can even be the root cause of poor mental health, especially in cases of excessive workloads, poor working conditions, or bullying and harassment.

Burnout

Burnout is also increasingly common in the workplace. It can cause people to think about terrible things. Some people resign, putting themselves into financial hardship, some even daydream about having accidents to imagine getting some rest in hospital. People suffer violent daydreams and mental breakdowns. In extreme cases, people consider and even commit suicide.

Ian Braid, former CEO of the British Athletes Commission, suffered from overwork and eventually burnt out. Ian’s job involved being permanently “on call” to offer advice support and guidance to athletes.

His story of overwork is a common one. He recalls:

“I was asked by my son whether I thought I was working too hard and my answer to him was I didn’t know how to relax any more. I was also having panic attacks on receipt of emails from certain people and I felt completely overwhelmed with the burden of everything. I couldn’t see any future.”

“I never felt suicidal but I did go cycling up a lot of hills near me to make myself hurt.”

In the end Ian realised he was too ill to work. He said:

“When I was ill I felt I’d lost all my anchor points. My family (I’d withdrawn from them) my self-esteem (I felt I’d let all the athletes and my family down) and my sense of purpose (I’d left my job that I was passionate about and couldn’t see what next).”

Eventually Ian took time off. On his return to work, Ian talked openly about his mental illness and realised that many other administrators, coaches and (match) officials, as well as athletes, were also struggling with mental health problems. As a result Ian set up DOCIAsport (Duty Of Care In Action) to help deliver effective, sustainable duty of care, and to address mental health in sport. See more about Ian’s journey with burnout in our previous blog post here.

Do businesses have a role to play in suicide prevention?

Employers and occupational health practitioners have a vital role to play in both preventing suicide and responding to mental health crises, argues Andrew Kinder, head of mental services at Optima Health, in a report published by Personnel Today. Kinder also points to the higher rate of suicide amongst men, who find it more difficult to ask for support such as from friends, work colleagues or even accessing employee assistance programmes (EAPs).

This is where employers come in. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 70 per cent of recorded suicides are by people experiencing depression.

Businesses have a responsibility to spot depression, recognise the signs of stress and take a positive lead in supporting employees to manage that stress, even if the root cause is coming from outside of the workplace. The sandwich generation, for example, are increasingly acknowledged as being under considerable pressure to work, and care for both children and elderly parents.

Employers can and should help. They can offer flexibility, the option to work remotely (at home), additional leave (even if unpaid) and improve working conditions. Even small things like having a conversation with employees rather than sending an email can help to build more positive relationships in the workplace and create opportunities to check-in with staff about how they are feeling.

Financial well-being is another route cause of stress and worry. Employers can provide financial wellness advice to employees. Perhaps most important of all is workplace culture. If businesses are serious about their role in the prevention of suicide, they need to cultivate a culture of openness and trust, and let employees know that it’s ok to talk to someone.

Mental Health First Aiders and employee surveys

In recent years some organisations have started to put in place Mental Health First Aiders. These are specially trained individuals who offer support to employees with mental health issues. They are not counsellors, but are there to validate the importance of mental well-being in the workplace, as well as offer guidance to refer employees with any problems to appropriate healthcare channels.

There are now more than 400,000 Mental Health First Aiders in the UK. The training equips a person to identify, understand and help someone who may be experiencing a mental health issue. Employee engagement surveys can also help to unearth stress points that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Businesses do have a vital role to play in the mental well-being of their employees. It’s the right thing to do. A proper duty of care in the workplace when it comes to mental health could even save lives.

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