Suicide and the workplace
Summary: What is the evidence on suicide occurring in the workplace? What are the contributing factors. This article is a brief exploration of the current prevalence and experience, as relevant to Australia.
It is a well-known fact that employment can contribute to a person’s sense of well being as well as personal development and growth. Moreover, an employee’s self-esteem and self-confidence can be positively influenced in an encouraging working environment. Research literature has repeatedly shown that a healthy workplace can benefit an employee in many ways.
What happens when the opposite is also true?
In a world with rapid economic change and increasing globalisation, employees experience higher levels of stress more than ever before. As organisations place greater importance on revenue and less on employee mental health and satisfaction, there is greater potential for people to experience occupational distress which, in the extreme, may include psychological injury, suicidal behaviour and death by suicide.
So how prevalent is suicide in the workplace, what factors contribute to this devastating outcome and, most importantly, what can be done to prevent it?
Prevalence of Workplace Suicide
There are a range of challenges in relation to classifying “work related suicide” deaths, in order to determine prevalence rates. Despite these challenges, the following is noted. According to Germain (2013), occupational suicides increased by 22.2 percent between 1995 and 2010, becoming a leading cause of death in the USA. While there has been some conflicting evidence, some professions are affected by suicide more so than others, such as police and emergency services, farmers and construction workers (SPA 2014; Wang et al 2015). It is interesting to note that this phenomenon affects various industries and all levels of the organisation, from unskilled workers to executives (Germain, 2013).
Closer to home, Australian research reports that work-related suicides comprise a substantial proportion (17%) of all Victorian suicides, with the majority of recorded suicides being male. The risk of suicide for males in the workplace was seven times that for females (Routley and Ozanne-Smith, 2012). Furthermore, what of the evidence from Bottomley and Neith (2010) indicating that a significant proportion of occupational deaths by suicide in Victoria, originated from a physical injury? Statistics regarding workplace deaths by suicide can sometimes be hidden in other data, therefore prevalence is not readily extracted for research purposes.
Alarmingly, consistent with other developed regions, suicide death statistics ranged from 552 in 1999 to 441 in 2006, yet in recent years have remained the most frequent cause of death for working adults in Victoria (Germain, 2013).
A Swedish study conducted in 2015 concluded that worldwide, suicide is among the leading causes of death in working aged individuals (SPA, 2014; Wang et al 2015). Obviously, there is increasing recognition that the workplace has become a significant area of suicide prevention.
There is likely to be anecdotal accounts that provide greater context and depth to the research cited herein, however the Australian research is limited. The Victorian study analysed suicides recorded on the Victorian Work Related Fatality Database due to their relationship to work through a work agent, work stressor, commercial vehicle (train and truck) or work location, as identified from police reports or Coroners’ findings. Examples of work agents are pharmaceuticals obtained by hospital staff or chemicals by cleaners. Stressor inclusion criteria are:
- Harassment or bullying
- Ongoing difficulties gaining employment
- Business-related financial problems
- Mobility limitations
- Pain or depression after a workplace injury
- Recent redundancy
- Work-related compensation claims
- Involvement in job-related court proceedings
- Work-related interpersonal conflict or relationship breakdown
- Stressful work conditions.
(Routley and Ozanne-Smith, 2015)
Routley and Ozanne-Smith concluded that the most common work-related stressor types were business-related financial problems, recent retrenchment or fear of this, resignation, general/other work stress and unable to find employment.
There is a significant absence of information initially identified by Bottomley and colleagues in 2010, regarding workplace injury and suicide. The question is, what factors might explain this association and what is the trajectory for a worker who has had a physical injury and how can intervene in a more effective way to break the association?
The American study by Germain (2013) highlights that the number of suicides and suicides attempts by employees keeps increasing in large organisations, in particular those publicly traded on the stock market.
Again, mental health plays a major role as it is widely documented that mental illness affects productivity and the ability of an organisation to meet its goals. In total, 20 percent of employees will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime (Germain, 2013). As a result, managers face issues that are directly impacted by the mental health of their employees. These situations are becoming more common because of the additional workplace stress caused by a struggling economy, increased use of complex technology, legal compliance issues and greater expectations to deliver excellence (Germain, 2013).
There is an abundance of evidence that demonstrates that people who are actively engaged in work, experienced better mental health than those who are not. SRAA advocate for strong action in ensuring that the workplace actively manage and respond to workers’ mental health needs, and indeed have strong, evidence based procedures to effectively respond to staff crisis or suicidality. Although suicide is a rare phenomenon, we can see from the above information that Australian workplaces are well positioned to make a strong and meaningful stand to prevent suicide and poor mental health outcomes through implementing strategic approaches to those factors identified as contributing to increased risk.
If you would like to know more, see Part 2 (coming soon), Responding to Suicidality in the Workplace or contact SRAA.
Bottomley, J., & Neith, M. (2010). Suicide and Work: The need for improved data collection on work factors in suicide as a contribution to suicide prevention. ST Kilda: Creative Ministries Network.
Germain, M. (2013). Work-related suicide: an analysis of US government reports and recommendations for human resources. Employee Relations, 36(2), 148-164.
Routley, V.H. & Ozanne-Smith, J.E. (2012). Work-related suicide in Victoria, Australia: a broad perspective. International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion, 19(2), 131-134.
Suicide Prevention Australia (2014) Work and Suicide Prevention: Position Statement. Sydney; Suicide Prevention Australia.
Wang, M., Björkenstam, C., Alexanderson, K., Runeson, B., Tinghög, P., Mittendorfer-Rutz E. (2015). Trajectories of work-related functional impairment prior to suicide. PLoS ONE 10(10): e0139937.
First published 6 April 2017
By Carmen Betterridge