Stepping in, lending a hand

Workplace suicides on the rise, finds U.S. study – but employers can help
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/01/2015

Suicides in the workplace have been on the rise since 2003 — and some occupations are at higher risk than others, according to a 2015 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 


“Those tend to be protective services, which include police, firefighters. The second group are those in farming, fishing and forestry occupations. And then the third group, which was a unique finding, are those in automotive or maintenance and repair occupations,” says Hope Tiesman, West Virginia-based research epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the study’s author.


The study evaluated U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2003 to 2010 and found slightly more than 1,700 people died by workplace suicide between those years. Workplace suicide rates were 15 times higher for men.


“We found a bit of a discrepancy between the age-related findings. So slightly older workers, 65 to 75 years old, they were the highest suicide rate of all workers, and this was quite different from non-workplace suicides,” says Tiesman.  


Of course, these types of suicides will have a significant impact on other employees, but so will work-related suicides that take place offsite, says Mary Ann Baynton, Toronto-based program director at the Great West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.


Prevention

The workplace is well-positioned to help with suicide prevention efforts — and those efforts should be part of the overall health and wellness strategy, says Sally Spencer-Thomas, co-founder and CEO at the Carson J. Spencer Foundation in Denver, Colo.


“On a safety side… suicidal behaviours are potentially a danger for workplaces, and so risk management and safety initiatives are also paying attention to this issue.”


There is a direct link between the prevention efforts we can put forward in the workplace and helping connect people with the education and resources they need for mental wellness, says Tana Nash, president of the Ontario Suicide Prevention Association in Kitchener, Ont. 


“The workplace does have a great role to play. So, for example, just like we did with physical safety in instilling CPR and first aid in the workplace… we can do the same thing (with mental health). If we actually rolled programs out through the workplace, one, we’d be making more emotionally sound workplaces and, at the same time, we know that those skills that we teach our employees will also be translated back out into the community at large.” 


Just as schools make sense as a venue for youth mental health initiatives, workplaces make sense as a venue for mental health promotion and suicide prevention, says Spencer-Thomas. 


“Most working-age adults are either employed or are a family member of someone who’s employed, or have been recently employed. So workplaces touch a lot of people and with the prevention focus, we are looking at a lot of things. We’re looking at upstream prevention, where workplaces can bolster resiliency, stress management, mental health literacy, the things that can prevent a mental health condition or a suicidal crisis from occurring in the first place,” she says. 


“The downstream prevention is, say all that happens and we still have a crisis, how do workplaces respond to people in a mental health crisis, or even after a suicide?”


There are several facets of prevention, but they all fit into an overall approach to health and safety, says Baynton. 


“Implementing a psychological health and safety management system would be a huge step toward prevention.” 


Best practices

Suicide prevention programs don’t just mean talking about suicide, says Nash. 


“(It’s) also talking about what does stress look like? What does anxiety look like? What does work-life balance look like? What are some really good coping skills?”


Programs can also entail learning about individual risk factors, says Baynton. 


“(Those could include) prior suicide attempts, when someone has experienced the suicide of someone close to them; addiction and substance abuse is a risk factor, as are certain mental illnesses, especially things like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder,” she says.


“Stigma is a risk factor when it discourages individuals from asking for help.”


Managers and supervisors play a critical role, says Nash. 


“They’re the leaders, they’re leading the pack, so leading by action and their healthy activities and their healthy behaviours,” she says. 


“Managers do have a really important role to play because they’re kind of the holder of the purse strings. They dictate how your day can be.”


It’s helpful for managers to be aware of warning signs in employees, such as significant changes in behaviour, depression, absenteeism, eating or sleep disturbances, says Spencer-Thomas. 


“Verbalizations often are also cues from a suicide prevention perspective. It’s rare that people will come outright and say that they’re thinking of killing themselves — it does happen, but it’s not as common as what we call the veiled communications… it’s things like ‘Who cares if I’m here anyways,’ ‘Nobody cares about me,’” she says. 


“Trained managers and supervisors will not let that kind of statement pass without leaning in and saying ‘What do you mean?’ or ‘Tell me more’ or ‘Is there something going on that I can support you with?’”


Human resources also has a key role to play in terms of training and implementing tools such as the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety and the Working Minds program, says Nash. 


“Let’s just start right at the beginning and say, ‘OK, does stigma exist within the HR department?’ And to address that and to address our own comfort levels around ‘Where are we as an HR department... do we need training?’”


There are a couple of key things that can make a dramatic difference toward prevention, says Spencer-Thomas. 

 “The two things that are really protective for people in a mental health crisis, and with suicide in particular, are a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.”

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