With World Suicide Day this month and World Mental Health Day next month both have a focus on suicide prevention. The role therefore that employers can play in helping to prevent the tragedy of suicide as well as supporting colleagues, friends and families after suicide will be firmly in the health and wellbeing spotlight.
Employee health and wellbeing – preventing, but also managing, the tragedy of suicide
In 2017, in the UK and Ireland alone, over 6,000 people committed suicide, according to the charity The Samaritans. Each, of course, is an individual tragedy but, as well as being an intensely personal “cry for help”, a death from suicide can have a massive and traumatic health and wellbeing impact on friends, colleagues or family members, both inside and outside the workplace.
This is where calendar events such as World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September and, next month, World Mental Health Day on 10 October – which this year will also have a focus on suicide prevention – can help to kickstart important health and wellbeing conversations.
World Suicide Prevention Day is a global initiative organised by the International Association for Suicide Prevention but supported in the UK by The Samaritans, among other charities. World Mental Health Day is backed by the World Health Organization and this year’s theme has been set by the World Federation for Mental Health.
An employer can provide important support on a number of levels. First, of course, an employer can have a vital role in terms of identifying and supporting someone who is in mental crisis to get the help they need. This may mean an urgent intervention to “blue light” emergency services if an employee is at risk of doing themselves serious harm.
More widely, it is important that employers are creating an environment and culture where employees feel able to be open and talk about mental ill health without fear of stigma or sanction.
But an employer can also be an important support during the grieving process following a suicide.
This can be both in terms of offering an element of “normality” and peer support when workers are coping with the shattering experience of someone committing suicide. But it can also be through providing flexibility, adjustment and a sympathetic ear, whether informally or through access to counselling or an Employee Assistance Programme.
Impact of the workplace
Andrew Kinder, professional head of mental services at Optima Health emphasises that, while suicidal feelings and mental health issues will often be caused by multiple factors and stressors, the impact of the workplace should not be overlooked, especially the role of long hours, heavy demands, poor management practices, conflict, organisational change and uncertainty and inappropriate behaviours.
“Managers are unlikely to have the expertise needed to manage someone who is spiralling into a mental health crisis. But it is imperative that there is a policy and training which managers can follow in relation to how to manage such a crisis – whether it is calling the police or an ambulance or some other course of action.
“For less immediately urgent cases, an occupational health referral or contacting the EAP can be helpful, as then the employee can be assessed and appropriate referral made from there. Mental health first aiders may also be able to provide useful support but are not a panacea.
“In terms of support for colleagues in the aftermath of a suicide, it is all about being flexible and supportive and listening to what your employees need. Again, offering access to a counsellor, whether through an EAP or some other route, can be valuable. An EAP may also be helpful in terms of offering advice and guidance to managers about how to deal with what can be a challenging time for any organisation,” he adds.
Andrew Kinder has co-authored a book with Dr Shaun Davis, global director of safety, health, wellbeing and sustainability at Royal Mail Group, called Positive Male Mind: Overcoming Mental Health Problems and which is published by Lid Publishing.