feeling suicidal because of work

Feeling suicidal because of work?

Feeling suicidal because of work?

Every year it is estimated that between 5,500 and 6000 people in Britain take their own lives. Life for many people is difficult and it is an unrealistic fallacy to expect those people to leave their troubles at the door when they come into work.

Little surprise then that the suicide of a colleague or feelings of being suicidal at work, whether that be in or outside of the workplace, is not uncommon. And yet, suicide remains taboo. I think this stems from a general misunderstanding. An inability to comprehend what may have led that person to take their own life. A fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. So many questions. So few answers.

It’s difficult to imagine what could be more distressing than hearing about a colleague who has taken their own life.  

I have no personal experience of suicide but this is something that I have come across on several occasions in my professional life. Clients, who are so desperate that they have confided in me their suicidal thoughts and, one particularly troubled client who sent me an email, having spent an arduous day in a tribunal witness box to say, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye.’ Thankfully, that client did not action her words but the sense of horror, dread, and helplessness of reading that email stays with me to this day.

Employers have a role to play in preventing suicides and supporting those members of the workforce who may be at risk or who are grieving the loss of a colleague.

Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe working environment for their workers. 

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act and the Health and Safety at Work Act both potentially apply if it can be shown that the suicide was a result of the employer’s actions. Despite this, there are few reported cases of successful claims for damages in the civil court after a suicide. 

So, what can be done to help those in need of support?

Employers and colleagues should remain vigilant for those who are exhibiting signs of stress, unusual behaviours, or who have asked for support. All concerns, no matter how trivial, should be taken seriously and not be ignored.

Look out for colleagues who are facing challenges in their personal life. Yes, we are all busy, and yes, not all colleagues welcome what they may perceive as intrusive enquiries into their personal lives. But, it takes only a few moments to ask someone if they are OK. And you don’t need to be an expert to listen. 

Studies have reported a strong link between suicide and work. Suicide is especially prevalent for men in low-skilled, labour-intensive roles. Nursing staff, primary teachers and agricultural workers have also been shown to be at higher risk.

Particular care should be taken for the well-being of staff during periods of restructuring and for disabled staff who may experience barriers in their everyday working life, which can easily be overlooked by an outsider.  

Often it is best to address the issues within the wider Occupational Health and well-being policies. Workplaces that take measures to prevent stress, give workers an element of control and have an open and honest approach to mental health, are more likely to ensure that workers are comfortable raising issues when they know that they will get support.

Safe and healthy workplaces can be achieved by:

  • Promoting good mental health and destigmatising mental health problems
  • Reducing stress at work
  • Preventing and taking action against bullying and harassment
  • Extending support and psychological health services
  • Educating and training managers and other key staff

Good absence and return to work policies ensure that people who are ill, including with mental health problems, are given the time off they need to get better. It is important to maintain reasonable contact with anyone off sick, but not to put pressure on them to return before they are ready. Presenteeism is harmful. 

The risk of suicide is often highest after a person has been put under threat of disciplinary action or suspended. Regardless of the reasons for the disciplinary action, the employer has a duty of care to the employee during the disciplinary process, especially if the person is suspended while investigations are continuing. Suspension should not be seen as a neutral act as it can have a significant impact on the person affected. The employer should explain that the suspension is not a presumption of guilt and make plans to ensure the employee’s well-being. They should also ensure that the investigation and any hearings are concluded as quickly as possible. If there are concerns around mental health employers would be wise to ensure the person impacted has someone by their side to support them in the event of delivering negative outcomes. 

Individuals should be encouraged to seek help from their GP, the employer’s Employee Assistance Programme/OH provider, or organisations such as the amazing charity Samaritans.

No one wants to get that fateful call. No one wants to have to ask themselves could they have done more?

This blog was written by Kate Lea Senior Solicitor at didlaw