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How to identify and support employees at risk of suicide

9 Sep 2021 By Colin Grange

Ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day, Colin Grange explains how people professionals and line managers can offer help to employees who may be at risk

With suicide prevention a focus in the run-up to World Suicide Prevention Day tomorrow (10 September), preliminary data from the ONS might appear to give cause for hope. It shows that the suicide rate decreased during the first Covid lockdown, due to a fall in the male suicide rate, while female rates remained similar.

However, 1,603 suicides still occurred between April and July last year, meaning 13 people ended their life every day, around three-quarters of whom were male. Furthermore, healthcare workers, the employees who were most heavily impacted by exposure to stress and trauma during this time, saw suicide rates increase by 21 per cent.

As protective schemes such as furlough come to an end, the risk is that many more people will find themselves experiencing feelings of despair. This is at a time when more people than ever are working from home, which will make those who are struggling more difficult to identify.

Critical to ensuring this doesn’t happen is ensuring managers stay connected to their teams, by regularly asking each individual how they’re feeling. This is especially important if they can see changes in the person’s behaviour, such as them becoming quieter and more withdrawn, defensive, tearful, forgetful or error prone.

It’s also important to bear in mind risk factors. Stressful life events, such as a bereavement, relationship break-up or divorce, getting into debt or being made redundant, can all put people at risk. 

Men are also three times as likely to commit suicide than women, with men aged 45-49 most at risk. However, suicide rates among younger people, especially women under 25, are also increasing. People with pre-existing mental health conditions, such as depression, or who have attempted suicide before, are also at risk.

Those who feel lonely and isolated are also at heightened risk because they often lack the friendship, family and other support networks needed to open up about their feelings and get reassurance that even though they feel like this now, it won’t always be the case. However, it’s also important to bear in mind that many people feeling like this will hide their feelings.

Managers have a duty of care to understand if anyone who seems particularly low in mood or overwhelmed is at risk, so it’s okay to sensitively ask: “Are you feeling suicidal or have you had feelings of hurting yourself?” Far from putting the idea to do this into someone’s head, asking this question is essential to understanding if the person is at risk, because if they say yes, the manager can then take steps to direct them towards support.

For managers to feel comfortable doing this, it’s essential that they know how and where to direct employees to any support services in place (be this a counsellor via the company’s employee assistance programme (EAP), a charity helpline or their GP). Otherwise the manager might feel tempted to advise or counsel the employees, when this would be inappropriate and could lead to the manager feeling personally responsible for the individual.

Managers should also be encouraged to consider contacting support services on behalf of the employee, as often it’s easier for someone to accept help than to proactively seek this. Managers should then continue to check in with anyone who has received help, to see if this is actually helping and if there’s anything else they can do to help. Steps might include flexing their hours to help the individual deal with the underlying issue that led to their depression or suicidal feelings in the first place. For example, by shifting their hours so they can meet their children a few days a week from school after a relationship breakdown. Time off could also be given to meet with a counsellor within working hours.

At the same time, many of the opportunities people used to have to connect with each other through work, in the coffee area, at lunch or while passing people in the corridor, have gone. So it’s also important to think about how to re-engineer those social interactions – by creating opportunities for people to still chat and socialise with each other, the way they might have done during a break or at lunchtime in the physical workplace. Also consider arranging an informal gathering, even if people are no longer based in the office full time.

Employers can also use World Suicide Prevention Day to tell employees that they recognise that the past year has been difficult and that if anyone is struggling, there is support in place to help them feel better, detailing how to get in touch.

Colin Grange is clinical director for PAM Wellbeing and PAM Assist

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