Suicide and the workplace

19 May 2014 by GrahamSmith

Harman Singh is project manager and marketing executive at The Stress Management Society

Suicide is an often taboo subject to discuss in the workplace, and yet it is one that many organisations will have to deal with.

The sad reality of suicide was highlighted to me last month after three separate trains I was travelling on were delayed because somebody had jumped onto the tracks.

According to the Samaritans, suicide figures are showing an alarming trend. Male suicides were at their highest for nearly a decade in 2011. Also, male suicides are three to five times higher than female suicides.

A personal experience

I have played five-a-side football with a lovely bunch of guys for several years.

One is the same age as me — 38. He was married, with a young child, had a great job working in an investment bank, and seemingly had everything going for him. One day in November I got a text from another of the guys to let me know that he had sadly taken his own life by jumping in front of a train on his commute to work.

What drives someone to take such a course of action? In our personal experience here at The Stress Management Society, we work with on average two clients a month that have had a suicide case within the previous year. Tiptoeing around the topic of suicide can lead to an increase in the stigma surrounding it, thereby furthering its reputation as a taboo subject.

Why are males at a higher risk?

Suicide among males has seen a dramatic increase with 4,590 men taking their lives in 2012.

The male age group most at risk is 20 to 49-year-olds. It is no coincidence that this sharp increase in male suicides has coincided with one of the worst financial slumps in history.

One recent study carried out by the University of Portsmouth found that male suicide rates increased dramatically in Greece when financial cuts were implemented. They stated that this was due to males being affected the most by a reduction in salaries and pensions.

Leading on from this point, the male identity is currently being threatened. In addition, there is also a problem of masculinity.

The traditional breadwinner archetype of a man does not permit acts of emotion and "weakness". Even though this stereotype is changing, some men are failing to adapt and are still striving for the old traditional "manly" way of doing things (e.g. bottling up emotions).

This has led men from that vulnerable age group of 20 to 49 to become disillusioned with what is the right way to deal with things. Should they maintain silence as they have practiced for a long time or should they adopt the new, expressive method?

Does travel impact your mental health?

Travelling for work can often be a long, lonely and arduous activity. Excessive travelling can lead to an employee feeling detached from a social, working environment. This may cause them to feel forgotten about, out of the loop and unimportant.

In addition, travel deprives employees from the existing wellbeing (both mental and physical) support resources provided by their employment organisation.

Travel also causes stress through a variety of ways e.g. lost luggage, delayed flights etc. Stress has been linked to a variety of psychological disorder, such as depression, schizophrenia, and suicidal tendencies.

Suicide and your organisation

The effect suicide has on the workplace is astronomical. In our experience, it affects every facet of every department. It affects people that did and did not know the victim. It affects directors and employees alike.

Firstly, the loss of an employee can have a huge impact on the psyche of other employees. It can bring down employee morale and leave their emotions devastated.

And stress among the workforce can greatly increase. Working in an emotionally charged environment can be taxing for even the most experienced worker, which leads to reduced productivity and an increase in work errors.

Steps to reduce suicide rates

There are a variety of steps that you can take to help prevent suicide within your organisation. Below are some recommendations:

  • Take suicide seriously

"Those problems weren't enough to commit suicide over," is often said by people who knew someone that took their own life. You cannot assume that because you feel something is not worth being suicidal about, that the person you are with feels the same way. It is not how bad the problem is, but how badly it's hurting the person who has it.

  • Suicidal behaviour may be a cry for help

The fact that a person is still alive suggests that part of them wants to continue to live. The suicidal person is stuck between a rock and hard place — part of them wants to live and part of them wants the pain and anguish to end, not necessarily in death.

It is the part that wants to live that tells another "I want to die." If a suicidal person turns to you, it is likely that they believe that you are more caring, more informed about coping with misfortune, and more willing to protect their confidentiality.

No matter how negative the manner and content of their talk, they are doing a positive thing and has a positive view of you.

  • Be willing to give and get help sooner rather than later

Suicide prevention is not a last minute activity. It should be offered as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, suicidal people are afraid that trying to get help may bring them more pain — being told they are stupid, foolish, sinful, or manipulative; rejection; punishment; suspension from school or job; written records of their condition; or involuntary commitment.

You need to do everything you can to reduce pain, rather than increase or prolong it. Constructively involving yourself on the side of life as early as possible will reduce the risk of suicide.

  • Listen

Give the person every opportunity to unburden their troubles and vent their feelings. You don't need to say much and there are no magic words. If you are concerned, your voice and manner will show it.

Give them relief from being alone with their pain; let them know you are glad they turned to you. Patience, sympathy, acceptance. Avoid arguments and advice giving.

  • Ask if they are having thoughts of suicide

People already have the idea; suicide is a major issue in modern society.

If you ask a despairing person this question you are doing a good thing for them — you are showing him that you care about them, that you take them seriously, and that you are willing to let them share their pain with you. You are giving the further opportunity to discharge pent up and painful feelings.

If the person is having thoughts of suicide, find out how far along his idea has progressed.

  • If they are acutely suicidal, do not leave them alone

If the means are present, try to get rid of them. Detoxify the home of potential implements that could be dangerous such as medication or sharp objects.

  • Urge professional help

Persistence and patience may be needed to seek, engage and continue with as many options as possible. In any referral situation, let the person know you care and want to maintain contact.

  • Don't Keep Secrets

It is the part of the person that is afraid of more pain that says "Don't tell anyone." It is the part that wants to stay alive that tells you about it.

Respond to that part of the person and persistently seek out a mature and compassionate person with whom you can review the situation. (You can get outside help and still protect the person from pain causing breaches of privacy).

Do not try to go it alone. Get help for the person and for yourself. Distributing the anxieties and responsibilities of suicide prevention makes it easier and much more effective.

All of these steps can make a big difference. If you would like to hear more about the work we carry out at The Stress Management Society, please feel free to call us on 0800 327 7697 or at [email protected].

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