The UK today isn’t well-equipped to deal with death. Go back just over 120 years and Victorian society was obsessed with it, led by a monarch who wore mourning dress for her late husband for over 40 years. But as mortality rates have decreased and the country has become more secular, death has become less visible. It’s a topic many find extremely hard to discuss.
Suicide is even more difficult to broach. Until 1961, it was a criminal act to take your own life in England and Wales1. “Self-murder” was seen as a moral sin in the eyes of the Church of England. Even now, there’s still a stigma around suicide and it’s still a taboo subject for many.
Death through natural causes is simple to understand. Someone choosing to take their own life leaves a lot of unanswered questions, particularly for family, friends and colleagues left behind. There’s always the thought, “Could I have done more?”
Suicide on the increase
In 2018, the most recent available figures, there were 6,507 suicides in the UK2. This represents a rate of 11.2 deaths per 100,000 of population, the highest since 20003. That's more than 3 and half times the number of deaths on UK roads over the same period4 and equates to a death every 81 minutes.
Suicide is also the leading cause of death for both men and women aged 20 to 345. These are people likely to be in employment – managers, colleagues, friends – making this an issue that sadly many employers and employees will have to deal with.
Work and suicide
A 2017 government report found a strong link between suicide and occupation6. Those working in the health sector and agriculture, for example, have been found to be at higher risk of taking their own lives. Job insecurity, disruption and change have all been cited as factors that can impact employees adversely and lead to suicidal thoughts7.
The time is right to address the taboo
Given the devastation that Covid-19 is wreaking on the UK economy and with the country officially entering recession, many employers and employees are facing an uncertain and challenging future. 69% of employees report feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect that Covid-19 is having on their lives8. Many are also experiencing worries around finances, coming off furlough or possible redundancy. These are all drivers that could lead to an increase in the number of suicides. When employers are considering how to best support the health and wellbeing of their employees through this challenging period, this aspect shouldn’t be overlooked.
Employers have a duty to recognise this is an issue that could affect any workplace. Providing support to people who may be struggling with their mental health, or tackling issues like harassment and bullying is only part of the solution. While doing as much as possible to prevent employees getting to the point where they feel suicidal is, of course, paramount, unfortunately, this can’t solve every problem. The reasons why someone takes their own life are complex and often deeply personal. Employers must also consider how to support their workforce if a suicide does happen.
Crisis management action plan
Suicide by an employee can have a profound effect on a business and their colleagues. Coming to terms with the situation will need time and dedicated support, especially to those closest to the deceased. An appropriate and empathetic response from an organisation, both in the early days and over the long term, will help everyone cope with the loss and ensures the business understands how to manage one of the most difficult situations they will ever face.
Postvention as well as prevention
It’s essential that organisations have a postvention plan. That means having clear guidance if, sadly, a suicide does occur. Putting the right support in place can help employees through the grieving process and is a critical part of preventing any suicides happening in the future.
Being prepared is the key. Here are some important steps that employers should take to get to that position:
- Ensure employees have access to mental health support and know how to access it.
- Provide mental health training for line managers – they are in the best position to spot early signs of distress and support employees who are struggling.
- Create a postvention committee of employees from across the business who will develop guidelines and roll them out to the business.
- Select one person to own the process and be responsible for making sure it is kept up to date.
- Get support from senior leaders and ensure they understand what the postvention plan is, what is required of them and who the lead and committee members are.
- Discover what support is available for employers through specialists in this area, such as the Samaritans or Child Bereavement UK
- Draft communication plans – any death should be addressed openly and honestly. Think about how best to sensitively communicate to employees, stakeholders and beyond to customers and the wider community.
- Consider how to manage social media. This is the outlet that colleagues are likely to use to express their grief and share memories on. It’s important that organisations are aware of what is being discussed and address any rumours or unsafe messages.
For more information, download a complete and comprehensive guide on how organisations can prepare for and manage suicides created by Business in the Community in association with Public Health England and the Samaritans.