A guide to address suicide prevention in the workplace

Employers play an important role in supporting the mental health of our population. Given that we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, it’s no suprise that the work we do, the people we work with, and the conditions we work in can have an impact on our mental health and wellbeing. The current societal pressures of the aftermath of Covid-19, increasing financial strain and climate change are causing worry and stress, compounded by day to day living and business and work challenges.

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As a result we’re seeing a rise in mental ill health and its repercussions – which includes suicide death. The World Health Organization estimates that 700,000 people die from suicide every single year and state that it is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds. Business in the Community report that in England a person dies by suicide every 107 minutes, and it’s the biggest killer of men under 50.

Its really important employers have a good understanding of mental ill health and proactively taking steps to improving employee wellbeing including suicide prevention.

⚠️If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is at hand. Please visit this list of helplines and resources for different countries.

Why is it important to address suicide prevention at work?

A suicide at work affects everyone. It shocks colleagues, sends ripples of worry, and can cause long term challenges for organizations and employees in the workplace. But most importantly it is a life lost, too soon. A life where there could have been hope.

Managers, HR teams and coworkers all play a role in developing a culture of wellbeing at work and in suicide prevention. It’s no one person’s role – we are all part of a community and society where no-one should be scared for speaking up about their mental health and asking for help. Employers and workers play an important job in suicide prevention at work.

There is a legal duty for employers to take care of employees and provide a safe working environment, and they should also recognise a moral imperative to do so, given they are in a unique position to support overall health and wellbeing, which includes suicide prevention.

Stigma around mental health and suicide

Unfortunately there still exists a lot of stigma around talking about both suicide, suicide prevention and mental health more widely. Our latest research All Worked Up showed that in the UK 83% of workers struggling with moderate to severe anxiety or depression would rather talk to a clinically validated app with self help resources, such as Wysa, than their HR team.

What are the warning signs an employee is at risk of suicide?

There is no one size fits all list. Some people become withdrawn and anxious. Others may turn to drinking, or drugs. But there are also stories that people, once they have decided to take their own life, become happy and seem more chatty and free. The reasoning is that they now see an end point to the pain and struggles they have been experiencing, as they plan for suicide death.

The best way to spot the signs that someone is at risk of suicide and in potential crisis is to look at how they have changed. If they are behaving or speaking in ways that are remarkably different to how they were previously, it could be a sign something is wrong.

A stressed out employee with his heads in his hands and a coworker with a shoulder on his arm

Mind says that there are certain risk factors that make someone more susceptible to suicide and thus should be things an employer is aware of.

  • Mental health issues
  • Bullying or discrimination
  • The end of a relationship
  • Adjusting to a big change, such as retirement or redundancy
  • Doubts about your sexual or gender identity
  • Long-term physical pain or illness.

The World Health Organization lists other warning signs to look out for, such as:

  • Expression of thoughts or feelings about wanting to end their life, or talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Expression of feelings of isolation, loneliness, hopelessness or loss of self-esteem, or dwelling on problems
  • Withdrawal from colleagues, decrease in work performance or difficulty completing tasks
  • Changes in behaviour, such as restlessness, irritability, impulsivity, recklessness or aggression
  • Speaking about arranging end-of-life personal affairs, such as making a will, or concrete plans for suicide abuse of alcohol or other substances
  • Depressed mood or mentioning of previous suicidal behaviour
  • Bullying or harassment.

You might also notice a detoriation in performance at work. There may be a lack of concentration, and deadlines not being met or completed. New or unexplained patterns of absence or latness could be a sign, alongside different eating patterns.Some people withdraw, or appear anxious or agitated, and mood swings could be common. There may also be signs of self harm.

Top tips for employers to create a suicide prevention programme in the workplace

Promote open communication in the workplace

To start with, we need to normalise the discussions around mental health and wellbeing. Organisations play a huge role in opening up safe spaces to talk about how we feel, stresses and challenges, and make it ok to say we’re not ok. By reducing the stigma, we make it more likely people will speak up and ask for help. Even if they don’t openly say that they are thinking about suicide or having or thoughts of self harm, having a workplace where it is ok to talk about how employees are feeling will make people feel less alone and more likely to share their thoughts and feelings .

Create a psychologically safe work environment

A psychologically safe work environment is one where employees feel comfortable to express themselves openly and honestly without fear of judgement. They feel able to be themselves in their interactions with others and behaviour in the workplace. Creating a workplace that helps meet some of the basic human needs of needing a sense of belonging and significance can really help support an individual’s mental health. If someone feels that they will be listened to with support and empathy, they feel safer, and more able to speak up when things get hard.

Bullying and harrassment are also highly correlated with poor mental health, and experiencing these will make it less likely that people struggling will speak out. Legally, employers must address any kind of workplace harrassment, and doing so not only stamps out unlawful and unethical behaviour, but creates a better workplace.

Identity and minimise workplace stressors

Work-related stress is defined by the Health and Safety Executive as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’ at work. It might not be that work-related stress causes suicidal thoughts, but it can add to other stresses or pressure and act as a trigger.

Think about if people are repeatedly working long hours, and see how efficiencies can be made or work shared among teams. Look at deadlines and targets that you are giving, and consider whether they are realistic. Look at reasonable adjustments, such as flexible working patterns, or hybrid locations, and consider whether ‘the way things have always been done’ is the right thing for your business and an individual right now.

Incorporate mental health resources and benefits for employees

There are all sorts of resources available to help employees with their mental health. Wysa, one of the best mental health apps on the market is used by employers all around the world. Wysa caters to the full spectrum of employee mental health needs, through the empathetic AI pengion that asks the right questions, never judges, and guides them to appropriate self-help tools.

You might also consider taking part in activities such as Mind’s annual Time To Talk Day, or the global World Mental Health Day, to make it known that your workplace is one where people can speak up and get support. There are other benefits you might consider through an employee assistance program, such as a regular wellness voucher to spend on anything from yoga to Netflix, whatever makes someone feel good. Monthly early finishes on a Friday can make it easier to feel there’s some kind of work life balance.

Publicise crisis support resources and suicide helplines

It’s important to make it easy for people to get the support they need in a crisis. The phone number for National Suicide Prevention Helpline in your country, as well as any websites, emails and chat functions should be displayed prominently.

Many organisations also give their employees a card they can keep with them, and have the details available on their intranet. This means that they have access to suicide prevention resources if they are struggling and feeling that there may be some kind of suicide risk.

Provide training to managers on addressing the topic

People in positions of leadership can play an important role in both addressing the taboo around suicide and mental health and can provide support for any employees or team members experiencing challenges, either themselves or when supporting a co worker.

It’s worth looking at external training such as Mental Health First Aid which addresses a number of mental health challenges including suicide and help identify potential risk and when immediate assistance is needed. Many people report that the psychological first aid skils are hugely beneficial for support and suicide prevention.

Managers should be aware of what the signs are and how to look out for them. They should also be encourage to speak about their own wellbeing and mental health, in order to foster an environment where it’s ok to speak up and speak out. But they should also know when to enlist the help of a mental health professional, especially when immediate action is needed to prevent suicidal behaviour.

Know the crisis intervention steps and procedure

Crisis intervention is key for prevention of suicide and to manage suicide risk, for both a manager and a co worker in the workplace. It’s ok to ask someone if they’re ok, and to specifically ask about suicidal thoughts or intent. Shying away from the issue may increase the stigma and it’s important we raise awareness as this can prevent suicides and save lives.

Encourage them to seek professional support. Managers are not counsellors or therapists, so should be aware of their own role and have boundaries in place. Although people shouldn’t be fearful of communicating with someone they are worried about, it’s important not to give the wrong advice. The best thing you can do is be a listening ear and create a safe space to speak.

If someone is in immediate danger and immediate action needs to be taken it is important to call the emergency helpline in your area – 999 in the UK and 911 in the US.

If you’re in the same workplace as them, remove all the means by which someone may take their own life, and if working remotely, encourage them to do so. This is a tangible action to manage risk that can help with suicide prevention.

However its important to make sure that no information relating to the employees health is disclosed to friends and family without their consent. Confidentiality can be broken if someone is in immediate danger.

Helping someone through crisis is likely to have an impact on you as well your team therefore it is really important to get the right support for you all. This may be done done through your EAP for example.

Be prepared to address a suicide death or suicide attempts

Suicide post-vention is essential. A suicide attempt or suicide at work can have an impact on both the individual and their co workers and many people may feel grief or need resources to manage in a difficult time. Suicide deaths are traumatic for all involved and many people may be affected.

There needs to be a clear communication plan in place, to speak to the bereaved’s family, colleagues affected, as well as any media interest. This should be a plan drawn together and enacted by senior leaders, people managers, communications departments and human resources leaders and include the resources needed to help employees in the workplace deal with a suicide loss. It’s also essential to ensure there is no misinformation or rumours spreading, and deal only in facts. Make sure that people do not post on social media, which will infringe privacy and impact organisations and could actually increase suicide risk of others.

Practical issues such as clearing a desk should be dealt with by HR. Some people might need time off for bereavement, and should be allowed as much flexibility as possible, and a phased return.

Bereavement is something that many people find difficult to talk about. Creating a safe space where people have access to help to discuss their feelings about losing a colleague is essential. Employers may provide access to therapists, group sessions for support through the company’s EAP or tools such as Wysa.

It may feel appropriate to have some kind of tribute to the colleague who has been lost, although this should not be mandatory for all to attend or see. Family members should be consulted as to whether attendance at the funeral is appropriate.

Photo by Khwanchai Phanthong

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko 

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