How Companies Can Implement Suicide Prevention Practices in the Workplace

suicide prevention practices in the workplace

Mental health awareness in the workplace is a tricky topic. Most employers want to present a happy front to the public, and to their employees, intimating everything is fine and “there’s nothing to see here.” But the truth is, without long-term mental health awareness and transparency in work environments, holding events for National Suicide Prevention Week will be worthless in your office

Mental health and death by suicide are inextricably linked. Depression, anxiety, despair, and hopelessness can combine to make a person feel worthless, like the world would be better without them in it. Toxic workplace cultures can not only make a person’s existing mental health conditions much worse, they can create them. Having an open work environment where mental health care is taken seriously can lead to better outcomes in preventing death by suicide.

One of the first things companies will have to do is admit that there are definitely toxic work environments out there. From small businesses with no more than one or two employees to global corporations, the urge a company has for team members to put on the happiest, most comforting personas can often hide a much darker reality. Racism, sexism, harassment, bullying, and a myriad of other harmful behaviors take their toll on people’s self-esteem and worth.

The stress and anxiety of constantly being bombarded with agressions both large and small can take a number of different forms. From developing sleeping disorders to depression to panic attacks, there’s only so much stress a person can physically, mentally, and emotionally stand. And that’s where National Suicide Prevention Week (NSPW) comes in.

Started in 1975, National Suicide Prevention Week aims to provide resources and share stories to reduce stigma around mental health in general and death by suicide in particular. As of 2020, the need for NSPW is greater than ever. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., making the odds of death by suicide more than double that of homicide. Rising along with the rates the general population is dying of suicide is the rate at which workplace suicides take place

In 2018, the last year the Bureau of Labor Statistics has published numbers for, workplace suicides had increased from 2017 by 11%, rising to 304 people taking their lives either in the workplace itself or while working outside of the building. This is the highest rate of workplace suicide in the 26 years the data has been gathered. In a study spanning from 2011 to 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics examined workplace suicides by occupation. They found that management occupations had the highest rates of death by suicides with 118 people fatally injuring themselves in that timeframe. 

But what exactly leads people to want to harm themselves as a result of the workplace? Aside from toxic work environments where hostility and harassment run rampant, there’s also more seemingly benign psychosocial reasons for employees to contemplate death by suicide. According to a StressPulse survey, the leading causes for workplace stress are excessive workload and interpersonal problems in the office. Add to that lack of community support, fear of judgement for sharing personal mental health information, relationship problems with superiors, bureaucratic constraints, poor work/life balance, performance pressure, and job insecurity and you have employees trapped in a pressure cooker they can’t escape.

There are best practices to implement mental health care and suicide prevention awareness into the workplace. According to the Action Alliance’s Comprehensive Blueprint for Workplace Suicide Prevention, the first step is to make sure both the orginization overall and it’s leadership support mental health care. Without this crucial step, information can be shared but no progress toward prevention can be made. If the support is there, then steps to mental health care implementation can begin. Primary among them are to promote mental health and stress management, make sure employees can talk freely about suicide and mental health without fear of reprisals or judgement, promote a healthy work/life balance instead of focusing on excessive workloads, and using Human Resources employees to be a company’s first line of defense in helping to prevent workplace suicides.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the workplace is already primed to be focused on mental health care as policies and rules come from one place, communication structures are already in place, and data to track mental health initiatives’ progress can be analyzed in short and long time increments to see what’s working and what isn’t. More active steps to implement suicide prevention include anonymous mental health screenings which allows employees to self assess for depression, substance abuse, and anxiety as well as creating programs for life skills like problem solving, stress management, and conflict resolution. Combined, these steps help to address the acute stressors of excessive workload and interpersonal conflicts by giving employees the tools to know when they need help and the confidence to ask for it.

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Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to preventing death by suicide. Each step can be met with the resistance of the stigma around acknowledging mental health. But we can’t change what we can’t talk about. Transparency within an organization is crucial to positive mental health outcomes in general, so creating an environment where employees can acknowledge their struggles is essential to preventing workplace suicides. It will no doubt be a long journey to reversing the rising rates of suicides in the workplace, but it’s a journey well worth taking.

 

Katherine Taylor’s grandmother prophesied her becoming a writer. Kate’s work has appeared in Bright Wall Dark Room, Very Local Nola, and StarTrek.com among others. You can read more of Kate’s work at Medium.com.

 


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