Suicide: what to do if the worst happens
Employers can reduce the risk of suicide and limit the shockwaves it sends through a workplace, says Louise Aston.
Last month, the Office for National Statistics published data which found that the risk of suicide among low-skilled male labourers, particularly those working in construction, was three times higher than the national average.
It’s vital that employers focus on how to reduce the risk of suicide, and identify and support employees who may be at risk, as well as having a plan in place should the worst happen.
Ending the culture of silence
While not everyone who takes their own life will suffer from a mental health issue, the stigma around discussing mental health at work is one of the biggest barriers to accessing support.
Given that men are more likely not to discuss mental health prior to reaching crisis point, employers need to create workplace cultures which support disclosure and enable people to access support, particularly in male-dominated sectors such as construction. The website Mates In Mind, which targets the industry, offers excellent examples of approaches, as well as training for employers.
Employers can help to reduce the stigma, and reduce the risk of suicide, by developing open cultures that promote mental wellbeing, recognising pressure from work and home life and taking steps to minimise stress – ensuring employees feel they have some level of control over the work they do.
This can be achieved by promoting good mental health, reducing stress at work, preventing and taking action against bullying, extending support and psychological health services, and educating managers and key staff to recognise early warning signs.
Developing a suicide prevention strategy
To help employers promote good mental health among employees, Business in the Community (BITC) has produced a new suite of toolkits, in partnership with Public Health England. These offer practical and sensitive guidance, helping employers to design protocols appropriate to their size and nature while providing the flexibility to respond to individual circumstances, and can be adapted by smaller organisations to make the best use of resources.
We would encourage construction employers to take a “whole person, whole systems” approach to developing their suicide prevention strategy, and to embed it within occupational health and safety policies as well as in general workplace culture.
Managers also have a key role to play in recognising the warning signs – such as changes in productivity, social functioning, personality or behaviour – and risk factors including gender and socio-economic status. However, many are having to respond to something they know little about.
Employers need strategies in place
Sadly, there will be times when an employee takes their own life. Construction employers need strategies in place to minimise the impact on the organisation and help employees deal with the consequences. This cannot be treated as a straightforward “death in service”; responsible businesses should position suicide prevention and postvention – care and support given after the event – as part of continuity planning.
BITC’s suicide postvention toolkit, Crisis management in the event of a suicide, helps employers to consider the issues arising from a workplace suicide and take action to reduce its impact. The toolkit (available at http://wellbeing.bitc.org.uk/all-resources/toolkits) includes a five-step approach for employers:
- Be prepared – form a postvention committee to develop protocols and communicate with employees if the worst happens.
- Use agreed templates of communication and nominate a lead member of staff to take the strain off operational managers.
- In the grieving phase, allow employees to disclose their needs and seek services confidentially, considering demographics and promoting employee assistance programmes.
- In the legacy phase, ensure support is in place and line managers continue to be sensitive about employees’ feelings and concerns.
- Allow reflection time – at an appropriate moment, consider what lessons can be learned and how these can be shared across the organisation and with other organisations.
Getting it right on mental health in the workplace will reinforce employers’ duty of care, strengthen trust among employees, improve retention and build a reputation as an employer of choice. Only then will we end the injustice of people suffering in silence and save lives.
Louise Aston is wellbeing director at Business in the Community
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