Suicide is a significant public health concern; it is an emotive and complex subject from both a personal and work place perspective. This article considers what support organisations can put in place to help employees at risk of suicide in times of crisis.
The Business Case for Action
This topic has been prevalent in the media in recent months, most recently following the death of a Head Teacher pending publication of their School’s Ofsted Report. Academics in the British Medical Journal have subsequently recommended that every work-related suicide should be investigated by the Health and Safety Executive. On 12 June 2023, Ofsted announced that school inspections are to change in England as a consequence of this case, after the Head Teacher’s Union claimed that the system was fundamentally flawed.
Statistics for work related suicides are not reported on, however suicide rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels, following a decrease in 2020. Additionally as we reported last month, the HSE has seen an increase in work-related ill health cases 2021-2022, with one of the primary causes of ill health being work-related stress. Against a backdrop of financial worries and job insecurity, these figures suggest there is a very real context for employers to be concerned.
How Can Employers Support?
It is important to note that suicide is not inevitable. Most people suffering with suicidal thoughts are ambivalent about dying but may be unable to imagine other potential solutions. With the right support, people can find their way through a suicidal crisis and recover. Suicidal feelings are necessarily related to the presence of a mental illness. These feelings are far more common that one may think and usually occur as a result of a multi-factorial process.
So what can managers do in practical terms?
It is critical that managers connect regularly with their teams, and use those opportunities to ask each individual how they’re feeling. This is especially important if they can see changes in the person’s behaviour, such as them becoming quieter and more withdrawn, defensive, tearful, forgetful or error prone. Being attuned to possible risk factors for employees – stressful life events, such as a bereavement, a relationship break-up or divorce, getting into debt or being made redundant, can all put people at risk.
Those who feel lonely and isolated are also at heightened risk because they often lack the friendship, family and other support networks needed to open up about their feelings and get reassurance that even though they feel like this now, it won’t always be the case. However, managers need to recognise that many people feeling like this, will hide their feelings.
Create opportunities for the team to reconnect with each other. Many of the opportunities people used to have to connect with each other through work – in the coffee area, at lunch or while passing people in the corridor – have gone. Think about how to re-engineer those social interactions for people to chat and socialise with each other, the way they might have done during a coffee break or at lunchtime in the physical workplace. You could also consider arranging an informal gathering, even if people are no longer based in the office full time.
As an employer, managers have a duty of care to understand if anyone who seems particularly low in mood or overwhelmed is at risk, as such if a manager is concerned about an individual it’s okay to sensitively ask: “Are you feeling suicidal or have you had feelings of hurting yourself?” Far from putting the idea to do this into someone’s head, asking this question is essential to understanding if the person is at risk, because if they say yes, the manager can then take steps to direct them towards support. The Charity Mind advises that ‘asking direct questions can encourage employees to be honest about how they are feeling. Many people feel relieved and less isolated when they are asked’.
Company wellbeing policies that tackle all areas of an employee’s health can provide essential information and guidance for both managers and employees. As well as signposting to external resources, they can provide much-needed clarity by outline what internal support is available and what processes are in place for individuals to access that support.
Internal support could include access to counsellors and therapy services delivered through a company’s employee assistance programme (EAP). External support might involve signposting to charity helplines or to the individual’s GP. Managers could offer to contact support services on behalf of the employee, as often it’s easier for someone to accept help than to proactively seek this.
Mind recommend putting a Support Plan in place for at risk employees. This is a document that sets out how someone would like to be supported and what they can do to help themselves in in a particular situation. It is also a useful document to keep important information and useful contacts in the same place. If, as an employer, you don’t feel able to support all ideas from the employee, it enables managers to research other resources or support organisations that may be able to help.
Whilst employees may be accessing external services, managers should still continue to check in with them to see if this is actually helping and if there’s anything else they can do to help. Other practical help might include flexing the individual’s hours to help them deal with the underlying issue that led to their depression or suicidal feelings in the first place. For example, by shifting their hours so they can meet their children a few days a week from school after a relationship breakdown. Time off within working hours could also be offered to enable an employee to meet with a counsellor.
Line Manager Training
Given the pivotal role line managers can play in providing the right support to employees, it is essential that they are properly supported themselves to enable them to fulfil this role successfully. The provision of appropriate, relevant training will be critical to this success as well as having access to internal resources and support for further guidance. It will be equally important for managers to understand that their role is in helping employees access the right support, but not to feel that are personally responsible for advising or counselling that individual.
Employers should seek to increase awareness of all areas relating to employee health and wellbeing and can use key focus days, such as World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September 2023 to let employees know that if they are struggling, there is support in place to help them feel better.
If you would like more help with understanding what support you can provide to your employees in this situation, or for any other HR concerns, please contact Helen Couchman in our team on 07799 901 669.