Each year, Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September draws attention to the prevalence and causes of suicide, as well as the preventative actions people can take. The month offers leaders in all areas of industry an opportunity to update their knowledge about suicide in the workplace and create policies that focus on prevention.
Suicide remains a taboo topic among many people, including some employers. However, it’s an issue that impacts millions every year. The impact of every suicide attempt extends beyond the victim to their families, close friends and co-workers. Many of them often go through struggles of their own after the suicide of a person close to them.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests that people use Suicide Prevention Awareness Month to contact those impacted by suicide and help “raise awareness and connect individuals with suicidal ideation to treatment services.”
That extends to the American workplace where the number of suicides has reached a record high.
Sobering Suicide Statistics
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks workplace suicides. The BLS reported that in 2019, the latest year for which figures are available, the number of suicides reached a record level. The BLS reported 307 workplace fatalities by suicide that year, a 34.1% increase from the 10-year low in 2015.
The statistics are equally startling when viewing data on the entire scope of the issue. An average of approximately 130 people commit suicide every day in the United States. Suicides also account for 54% of all gun-related deaths.
The American Federation for Suicide Prevention posts other suicide-related statistics to keep the public informed on this growing challenge in today’s society.
- Suicide ranks as the 12th leading cause of death in the United States
- In 2020, 45,979 people died by suicide in the U.S.
- An estimated 1.2 million suicide attempts took place in the U.S. in 2020
- Globally, about one in every 100 deaths is by suicide
The issue is particularly critical for men, who are more than three times as likely to die by suicide than women. The suicide rate is highest for middle-aged white men. Overall, white men of all ages account for almost 70% of all suicides in the U.S. each year.
Suicide and the Workplace
With the number of workplace suicides in the United States hitting the highest level ever, more organizational leaders are aware of the issue. However, as pointed out by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), “most have not been prepared on how to respond.”
In many organizations, managers and human resource workers play a key role in learning about and disseminating information on suicide prevention. September offers a good time for them to make policy recommendations that work year-round.
A paper by the Workplace Suicide Prevention organization posted by SHRM offers guidance on steps organizations can take create a workplace culture that supports raising awareness of the issue and promoting prevention.
1. Make Suicide Prevention a Priority
While only a fraction of suicides directly relates to the workplace, the vast majority of those who commit suicide are of working age. In many cases, work may have played a role in creating the situation that led to suicide (or a suicide attempt). Psychologically unsafe workplaces can contribute to challenges with employee engagement, absenteeism, ability to remain present, morale, and safety and error concerns. “The worst outcomes of unaddressed workplace mental health challenges are deaths by suicide, overdoses, and the consequences of addiction,” the paper notes.
2. Overcome Fears
Many managers and executives may fear they can become victims of a lawsuit if they engage with an employee experiencing mental health issues. They may also have concerns about managers losing large chunks of time dealing with such issues and the cost of training managers on suicide prevention. However, taking a proactive stance on promoting good mental health and addressing suicide prevention is the right thing to do and also can help lower risk for a company by improving overall workplace wellbeing.
3. Take Threats Seriously
SHRM advises that managers take every suicide threat seriously. Companies should invest in teaching HR personnel the warning signs of a potentially suicidal employee, as they often are the first to see these signs. They include:
- Frequent comments such as “I wish I wasn’t here” or “nothing really matters”
- Dramatic mood swings
- Increased alcohol and drug use
- Aggressive behavior
- Withdrawal from friends, family and community
- Impulsive or reckless behavior
4. Mental Health Issues
All employees should know the mental health benefits offered through their insurance, as well as any mental wellness resources offered through the workplace.HR should also clearly communicate to employees about any job-protected leave they can use to address mental issues.
5. Stay Mindful of Language
Employers must walk a fine line when it comes to suicide prevention. While it’s important to offer support, managers must also respect an employee’s privacy. It’s important to avoid asking unlawful medical questions. Any conversation should happen in private. Managers can state concerns about any employee’s words or behavior and ask for clarification about what was meant by a certain comment.