The UK today isn’t well-equipped to deal with death. Although over the decades mortality rates have decreased, death remains a topic many understandably find 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 Wales.1 Even now, there’s far too often a stigma around suicide and it’s still a taboo subject for many.
Death through natural causes for many is understandable. But someone choosing to take their own life often leaves a lot of unanswered questions, particularly for family, friends and colleagues left behind. There’s always the thought, “Could I have done more?”
The need to take suicide seriously
In 2020, there were 4,902 suicides in England alone, representing a rate of just under 10 deaths per 100,000 people.
Male suicide statistics are worryingly high —18 deaths per 100,000 among men are attributed to suicide.2 Men are often stereotyped for not discussing their emotions, anxieties and need for support, but is this surprising in a culture that still sadly too often relies on males needing to have a stiff upper lip?
However, suicide is the leading cause of death for both men and women aged 20-343 and must be taken seriously, as this is a stark statistic for us all to be aware of.
These are people likely to be in employment — our managers, colleagues and friends — making suicide an issue that sadly many employers and employees may have to deal with.
Work and suicide
A government report found a strong link between suicide and occupation.4 Those working in the health sector and agriculture, for example, have been found to be at higher risk of taking their own lives.
This said, for employees in any sector, job insecurity, disruption and change have all been cited as factors that can impact employees adversely and lead to suicidal thoughts.5
The time is right to address the taboo
Given the widespread implications that COVID-19 has had (and is continuing to have) on so many people across the UK, as well as the potentially long-lasting impacts on the global economy, many employers and employees face an uncertain and challenging future. This compounds the stress, worries and concerns felt by so many.
69% of employees reported feeling somewhat or very worried about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives.6 Many may be experiencing worries around finances, the furlough scheme ending or possible redundancy. These are all drivers that could cause employees additional anxiety, stress, and worry.
As employers consider 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 of care to recognise this is an issue that could affect any workplace. Providing support to people who may be struggling with their mental health and wellbeing 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 paramount, unfortunately this can’t solve every problem. For each individual, the reasons why they take their own life are complex and often deeply personal.
Crisis management action plan
Employers must also consider how to support their entire workforce if an employee does tragically take their own life.
Suicide by an employee can have a profound effect on a business and its people. Coming to terms with the situation needs time and dedicated support, especially to those closest to the individual that has sadly taken their own life.
An appropriate and empathetic response from employers, both in the early days and over the long term, will help everyone cope with the loss and ensure the business understands how to manage one of the most difficult situations they will ever face.
Postvention and well as prevention
Businesses must 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 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 organisation 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 the support available from national and regional charities who have expertise in particular areas relating to mental health or bereavement.
- 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.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article then please consider visiting the NHS support page, which has a dedicated section on guidance and advice.
1 Legislation.gov.uk, Suicide Act 1961
2 Office for National Statistics (ONS), Quarterly suicide death registrations in England, April 2021
3 ONS, Leading causes of death, UK: 2001 to 2018, March 2020
4 Trades Union Congress (TUC), Work and suicide, February 2019
5 Samaritans, Dying from inequality, 2017
6 The Health Foundation, Emerging evidence on COVID-19’s impact on mental health and health inequalities, June 2020