Supporting an employee who is in such a bad place mentally that they are struggling with suicidal thoughts can be intensely challenging and is likely to require fast, specialist support. But there is also much employers can do to create the right environment and culture to support mental wellbeing in the workplace.
Employee health and wellbeing – employers need to act decisively if employees are experiencing mental distress or suicidal thoughts
The toll of mental ill-health in the workplace was sharply illustrated by a range of surveys and research during the course of the autumn last year.
To highlight but a few, more than half of men (56%) admitted to having had thoughts of suicide, a study by the magazine Men’s Health suggested. Up to 300,000 people a year lose their jobs each year because of long-term mental health problems, the government’s independent review into workplace mental health concluded. The charity Mind argued men were twice as likely to have mental health problems because of their job, compared to problems outside of work.
Employees who opened up about mental health issues at work commonly risked demotion, disciplinary action or even dismissal, research from the charity Business in the Community warned.
Managing and supporting mental ill-health is hard enough at the best of times, but when it spirals into suicidal feelings or feelings of distress it is especially challenging to manage. The need to be supporting employees who are suffering from feelings of intense distress or suicidal thoughts is far from uncommon.
The fact we spend so much of our day-to-day lives at work, and the fact it can be a source of stress, pressure and anxiety – not least the pressure to maintain a Swan-like “front” of composure and control – means that, when it all becomes too much, the workplace can become a trigger for and the location of, feelings of distress.
Figures from The Samaritans published in 2017 suggested the highest suicide rate in the UK in 2015 was for men aged 40-44, even though female suicide rates were also at their highest for a decade. Male rates remained consistently higher than those for women, around three times higher across the UK as a whole, it added.
What then, can employers do in such challenging circumstances?
First, recognise that if an employee is having suicidal thoughts, fast, decisive intervention may be needed, perhaps by calling in experienced, specialist mental health support or even, if the employee is in danger of harming themselves or others, from the police, ambulance or other blue light services.
There are useful online tools that employers can encourage managers to become familiar with, such as an organisation’s own Employee Assistance Programme, this Australian guidance from a range of mental health charities, general guidance from HR magazine, guidance from the mental health charity Mind and advice from the NHS, although these are just some.
Role of Mental Health Services, EAPs and a supportive environment
Hopefully someone who is actively suicidal in the workplace will be an extreme and unusual event, however it can happen and employers should be prepared.
At a more general level therefore, offering support when it comes to mental wellbeing can be about employers making sure their workplace environment is open, transparent and supportive, so as to encourage people to feel able to come forward and seek appropriate support.
This, of course, need not mean “transparent” as in visible to all and sundry. Access to confidential EAPs can be an important first-line support tool in this context, both for employers and employees. As this is a self-referral tool, organisations have a role to play in promoting their EAP service to their employees and particularly in raising awareness amongst managers.
An EAP is not by itself going to prevent someone spiralling into dangerous thoughts, but it may help them to unlock some of the issues and anxieties they have in a “safe” environment and, from there, seek more specialist help.
An EAP can also be helpful for managers in terms of offering best practice advice and support for what can almost always be a very challenging and emotionally draining situation.
Andrew Kinder, Professional Head of Mental Health Services at Optima Health and speaker at the Health and Wellbeing @ Work Show, makes the point: “If employees are feeling intense distress and mental anguish at work, the likelihood is they will need fast, decisive, professional help, especially if they are at risk of harming themselves or others. Individuals should be signposted to their EAP number, the NHS and in extreme situations either A&E or the Samaritans.
“Employers need to be ensuring managers have the training and tools to know to when to call in specialist help, and who to call.
“More widely, employers also have an important role to play in creating an environment that is supportive to employees suffering from mental ill-health, whether that is via an EAP, access to occupational health or simply through more progressive policies at work such as career breaks or flexible working arrangements.”
The Samaritans advise that whatever you are going through, you can call them free anytime on 116 123.