Employers need to do more to stop the scourge of work-related suicides

Recent suicide statistics indicate that many suicides are work-related. While we don’t know exactly the number of work-related suicides, one Australian study found that 17 per cent of suicides in Victoria from 2000 to 2007 were work-related.

Work is an important part of our life. We work to generate money, enjoy the sense of a job well done, develop friendships and feel part of something. But unfortunately, it is estimated that one in five Australians who suicide, do so because of issues they are facing in the workplace. This evidence is further backed up by Suicide Prevention Australia.

Clearly, workplaces are a big contributor to suicide in this country. Across the country, suicide is the leading cause of death for women aged between 25 to 34 and for men aged between 25 to 44. Some industries have higher suicide rates than others. For example, in Queensland, the construction industry has a higher rate.

If we look at workplace cultures across the world, Australia has the highest level of workplace bullying, nearly double the global average. Bullying leads to depression, which often leads to suicide.

Workplaces need to do more to address this issue. Directors, managers, business owners, are all responsible and based on recent Federal Court cases, can be found to be personally liable for issues in the workplace.

Incorporating suicide prevention, awareness and support programs into the workplace is an important must for any organisation.

It is a common myth that people who really want to suicide don’t tell anyone. The evidence is that eight out of 10 people give definite warning signs of their intention to kill themselves, but these warnings are often given in code.

In my experience, there are five warning signs of suicide that people often miss and these are:

Saying goodbye – this can sometimes be very subtle, like a phone call, extra hugs or a deep and meaningful conversation expressing thanks.

Sudden calmness, or a good mood – after a spell of depression it can seem like the person has recovered when actually they are relieved because they have made the decision to end their life

Risk-taking behaviour – things like reckless driving, drug use or gambling, especially if it is out of character can signal that the person has given up

Talking about others who have suicided – the person can be testing your reaction to see how you’ll respond, if its safe to talk to you

Lack of interest in activities they previously enjoyed – they may have some “reason” why they’re not doing it anymore, but it shows they’ve lost joy in life

Workplaces need to ensure that their working environments support staff and that managers are appropriately equipped to understand the risks of suicide in the workplace. With increasing pressures on workplaces to cut costs, increase productivity and systematise work processes, organisations need to act. Unfortunately, statistics indicate that market downturns usually result in increased workplace suicides – and Australia is operating in extremely challenging economic conditions at the moment.

A lot of the work we do with organisations across Australia and overseas involves assisting businesses to create sustainable, healthy, happy workplaces and this includes understanding the warning signs of mental health issues such as suicide. Organisations that deal with front line issues or experience significant market pressures or technology disruption or change are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues in the workplace.

There is much evidence to show that happy, healthy and well-supported workplaces achieve higher rates of retention, productivity and innovation. What I would like to see is more organisations valuing the importance of mental health in the workplace and a significant reduction in workplace suicides.

Unfortunately, workplaces often approach us after a suicide has happened, and it has had massive impact on their teams, managers and across the whole business. We really want them to be doing something about it before instead.

Pedro Diaz, Founder and CEO, The Mental Health Recovery Institute