Suicide – why it is a workplace issue
Suicides can be a tragedy both for those who attempt it and their families and friends. It can also have a huge effect on the lives of some groups such as train and tube drivers when people attempt to kill themselves in front of a train, or care workers, police officers and paramedics who often find the bodies. This is highlighted in the new issue of Hazards Magazine has a feature on suicide which shows how the UK is ignoring this major workplace killer.
As the Hazards article points out, all deaths “with the exception of suicides” must be reported under RIDDOR (the reporting regulations), which means that information on the occupational nature of suicide has, in the past, been ignored. Often it is seen as a personal tragedy that is the result of mental health problems rather than something which can be connected to work.
This connection with work is highlighted in new research from the government Office of National Statistics which shows that one of the most significant factors in determining suicide risk is the job someone does. It demonstrates that the stereotype of most suicides being amongst high powered professionals is a myth and it is working class lower paid workers.
The research looked at 18,998 suicides in men and women aged between 20 and 64 between 2011 and 2015. Amongst the finding of the ONS report are:
- Managers, directors and senior officials – the highest paid occupation group – had the lowest risk of suicide. Among corporate managers and directors the risk of suicide was more than 70% lower for both men and women.
- Low skilled male labourers, particularly those working in construction roles, had a three times higher risk of suicide than the national average.
- Of the skilled trades, the highest risk of suicide was among building finishing trades. Particularly, plasterers and painters and decorators had more than double the risk of suicide than the national average.
- For women, one of the highest risks of suicide was amongst nurses.
This reinforces the conclusions of another report out this month from the Samaritans called “Dying from inequality” which shows that occupation and class are major factors in suicide risk but also points out that job insecurity, zero hours contracts and workplace downsizing are major factors.
Of course it is in construction that the figures were most stark. After the report was published, Unite acting general secretary, Gail Cartmail, said: “These figures are truly disturbing and demonstrate that sadly the majority of construction employers are failing in their duty of care to their workforce. This is the latest evidence that the industry’s hire and fire culture is fundamentally unhealthy and is a major factor in these terrible and needless tragedies. Until the industry re-organises its approach to its workforce then it is not going to tackle the underlying causes of suicide in construction.
If there is a work connection to suicide then the workplace can also be used to help prevent suicide. Public Health England and the Samaritans have just produced two pieces of guidance for employers that should be useful in doing this. They are Reducing the risk of suicide: a toolkit for employers and Crisis management in the event of a suicide
While union representatives with find these useful it is also important that employers address some of the underlying issues that the ONS and Samaritans reports expose, in particular low pay, low status, precarious employment and stress.
Union representatives also have a role to play in ensuring that employers provide support for those with mental health problems, including access to confidential counselling. The TUC provides excellent training on mental health issues and has a downloadable guidebook on mental health in the workplace. There is also an eNote that covers the issues that you can access here (registration required).