But we are supposed to be safe at workThe unfortunate truth about the relationship between bullying in the workplace and suicide
Article in review: Leach, L., Too, LS., Batterham, P., Kiely, K., Christensen, H. & Butterworth, P. (2020). Workplace bullying and suicidal ideation: Findings from an Australian longitudinal cohort study of mid-aged workers. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, DOI: 10.3390/ijerph17041448
Summary & relevance: This research is such an important area of work for all of us – it’s meaningful for Human Resources, Work Health, and Safety as well as leadership teams. It’s meaningful for mental health professionals embedded within and running alongside a workplace – as Employee Assistance Program providers, or private practitioners offering counselling and support to those that have been impacted by bullying. It is also critical for those working in occupational rehabilitation, where supporting a person to return to work is one of the strong outcomes we hope for workers. This research has evidenced that workplace bullying is associated not only with the emergence of suicidality, but ongoing poor mental health and suicidality into the future after a person leaves the stressful environment.
Work and working conditions are part of the key social determinants of mental health. The environment in which we work can impact feelings of well-being and overall mental health. When employees work in a negative working environment, there may be higher levels of mental health problems, higher levels of alcohol and substance abuse, or greater absenteeism rates. Bullying also contributes to problems in the workplace.
Models such as the Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicide recognise key components necessary for suicidal thoughts are “thwarted belongingness” (social isolation from a valued group) and “perceived burdensomeness” (feeling a burden to others with little hope of change). It is not hard to imagine that a person experiencing workplace bullying may experience either of these thoughts.
Leach, Too, Batterham, Kiely, Christensen, and Butterworth (2020) investigate the less understood relationship between bullying and the occurrence of work-related suicide or suicidal ideation. Their research begins with a systematic review of the literature, which presented mixed findings.
In one study, it was found that those who reported workplace bullying had twice the odds of suicide at a later point. Another study found that those who were bullied at work had more suicidal thoughts, and in a third workplace bullying was independently associated with twice the rate of suicidal thoughts.
Then, in another study, it was suggested that only bullying behaviours that involved physical intimidation predicate suicidal ideation at two and five years later. In each of the studies cited there were limitations related to data collection and the relevance and impact of other factors.
This study involved data collected from 1806 people who were aged 52-58 years and were participating in the Personality and Total Health (PATH) through life study. The average age of respondents was 55 years, just over half were female and just over half worked in the public sector.
Participants were asked about their understanding of and exposure to workplace bullying, along with questions to determine the presence of suicidal thoughts or ideation. Other information about demographics, partner status, household income, employment, and working hours, as well as job adversities were recorded. Information about the presence of chronic health conditions was also taken.
- Active suicidal ideal in the past 12 months was reported by 8.4% of respondents
- 4% reported either active or passive suicidal ideation in the past 12 months.
- Respondents reporting suicidal ideation were significantly more likely to have a lower weekly household income.
- Respondents reporting suicidal ideation were more likely to work in low control, low-security jobs, and were more likely to report current or past experiences of workplace bullying.
- Those with active suicidal ideation were more likely to have experienced person-related and work-related bullying in the past six months.
Workplace bullying and suicidal ideation
Respondents who were experiencing workplace bullying at the time of the study were over two and a half times more likely to be experiencing suicidal ideation. There was a significant link between bullying and workplace adversities such as job control, job demands, job insecurity. So much so that 83% of people reporting current workplace bullying also reported these adversities. However, 53% of respondents reported these adversities and were not reporting any workplace bullying.
This study has been able to further our understanding of how work impacts our mental health and has found that current and prior experiences of bullying do increase the chances of a person experiencing suicide ideation. There is also an awareness that other work-related stresses may also contribute to suicide ideation. More research is needed to identify and understand work-related factors that increase the risk of suicide; in areas such as job quality and job turnover.
In providing a safe environment for staff, employers should be aware of the risk of an increased in suicide ideation when there are employment and interpersonal issues present in the workplace.
SRAA notes that there is significant responsibility held by workplaces in acknowledging the long-term impacts. It is recognised that bullying is a WHS issue, but if we are to properly support those people impacted, we need to ensure that the system embedded and aligned beside the workplace understands suicidality and can respond in timely and safe ways. Let us know if you would like to know more about how this can be achieved with technical and strategic innovations.