Workplace suicide and death – how the right employment culture helps to manage a difficult subject

Today I am returning to the issue of suicide. Not just because I am keen to keep the spotlight on the positive contribution employers can make around this tough subject, but also in anticipation of an important upcoming publication by Business in The Community (BiTC).

I recently travelled to London to contribute to a series of video interviews that will be used at the launch of the Mental Health at Work 2019 Report on 26th September. This important survey, conducted with YouGov, is the biggest piece of research of its kind, and is now in its fourth year.

I commented last year on the 2018 survey, which highlighted the high proportion of employees that don’t trust their managers or employers to discuss a mental health issue, speaking about suicide. This year I drew what some may consider the same short straw – yet it is a vital issue and one which must remain in focus.

How suicide and death can be better handled in the workplace

Suicide is now the commonest cause death in men under 50 years old. This group has dominated some of the workforces of very large employers with whom I have worked during my long career. It is part of the reason that I continue to campaign for greater awareness around how suicide and death are handled in the workplace.

We need to talk more about suicide. It is not helpful to avoid the subject, and there is much evidence that good employment practices can help both in suicide prevention and the support of those affected, if such a death does happen.

BiTC has already produced an excellent Suicide Prevention and Postvention Toolkit for employers for Public Health England. This is a freely available resource to show employers what they can do.

I find it interesting that most business leaders and managers tend to attribute their people management successes to their positive actions. They are quick to highlight how they have managed resources better, ensured equipment is reliable, and trained people well to do what’s needed. Yet it is unusual to find that managers have received training to provide good and positive mental health support. They are rarely provided with resources and information with which to do better for their team’s mental wellbeing.

There is good evidence that a positive workplace culture is good for you – and that means one in which it is safe to talk about all needs and issues.

The evidence also suggests that a positive workplace culture can help reduce suicide risks and enable early identification of signs and issues that contribute to those risks.

Of course, this won’t prevent all suicides, and that is hard. But even one less suicide matters hugely – to individuals, to families, and to colleagues. Having worked with organisations in the aftermath of a workplace death, I can assure you that the impact on business continuity can be significant.

Doing more to spot the signs early to help prevent suicide, and doing much better to support staff if the worst happens, is a responsibility to which all employers should step up.

Providing information at the right time to help

Empactis helps managers act well – to do the right thing at the right time. One of the most important aspects of this is simply to encourage good and timely communication.

It is not just OK, but should be actively encouraged, for managers to ask: “Are you OK?” and “What do you need?”

Managers can sometimes feel it is easier not to ask these questions – especially if they fear the responses, or the need to confront someone who is distressed and might be contemplating taking their life.

Of course, we cannot and do not expect managers to be psychiatrists or psychologists. Yet providing them with the knowledge of the support that is there to help a distressed report or colleague is often enough. The Empactis platform uses technology to help provide this information to managers when and where it is needed.

It may surprise you, but I look forward to speaking again about suicide at the launch of the upcoming Mental Health and Wellbeing survey and report. Speaking out and raising awareness can make a difference – even if it is just to one employer, to help one employee.