Self-harm in the Workplace

Self-harm, sometimes referred to as self-injury, is more common than one might think.

10% of children under the age of 16 will self-harm at some point (with first incident often taking place at around 12 years old), and approximately 17% of people aged over 16 will have self-harmed at least once during their lifetime.

Sadly, only half of people who self-harm have sought help from a professional which could be indicative that we, as a society, still don’t feel comfortable having open discussions around self-harm and emotional distress.

Self-harm is largely hidden, but this isn’t to say that you won’t encounter someone who has injured themselves during your career. One of the most important things anyone can do to support someone who is self-harming is to offer a compassionate, non-judgmental listening ear, and signpost to external, professional support.

What is self-harm?

It’s the act of physically hurting oneself in order to cope with emotional pain or overwhelming situations. Some people explain self-harming as a way to help them to:

  • Feel more in control of their emotions
  • Reduce the intensity of their emotions
  • Express emotional pain that they find difficult to put into words
  • Avoid or delay processing difficult feelings, events or situations
  • Feel better in that moment
  • Feel something other than emotional pain
  • Express sadness, hopelessness or fear to themselves or others around them.

A person may feel a sense of relief after self-harming, but the cycle is almost certain to continue if the causes of their emotional pain remain unchecked and unexplored.

Myths about self-harm

Self-harm is:

  • NOT attention seeking or manipulative. In fact, the majority of self-harming behaviours are hidden from others and most often occur in private.
  • NOT a mental health problem. Instead, self-harm is a symptom that someone is in emotional pain and needs support.
  • NOT something that affects only young people. People of all ages and from all walks of life use self-harm to cope.
  • NOT harmless. In fact, people can lose their lives when self-harming if they aren’t aware of how to stay safe.
  • NOT forever. There is support and help for people who self-harm and wish to stop.
  • NOT something about which to feel ashamed. It’s a way of coping, although there are other, healthier ways to deal with distress.

How can I help someone who is self-harming?

People stop self-harming when they feel they are ready, so telling them to ‘just stop it’ isn’t helpful. In fact, if the method of self-harming is taken away from someone before they access professional help and learn new ways of coping, they may revert to another way of self-harming which can be dangerous. They may hurt themselves more than they meant to, and in some cases, they can lose their life. It’s for this reason that it’s critical to signpost to professionals and not attempt to treat the person yourself.

You might be the first person they have been able to talk to about this issue so be sure to remain non-judgmental, even if you feel uncomfortable with the subject of self-harm. Trust means a lot and your commitment to offering a listening ear without giving the person advice will go a long way.

You might find it helpful to read this guide from LifeSIGNS on supporting people who self-harm before you speak with your colleague. Keep in mind however that it’s not your role to treat the person or take responsibility for their self-harm. If you find someone in the workplace who has injured themselves through self-harm, treat the situation as you would any medical emergency in the workplace by staying with them, asking your Frist Aider to provide in-the-moment care, and contacting 999.

If on the other hand, a colleague approaches you about self-harm or you suspect that they are harming themselves, you might find these tips useful.

  • Ideally, you will have set aside distraction-free time for a face-to-face discussion, and it can be helpful to ask the person where they’d like to speak – giving them a choice is very empowering. Acknowledge how difficult it must be to open up about their self-harm but don’t focus on or encourage them to tell you details about specific injuries or behaviours. Instead talk about how they are feeling and what they are going through.
  • Don’t ask about how they self-harm – they’ll share this with you if they want to.
  • If you have also self-harmed in the past, don’t share this. It will only detract from their story – this is about them, not you.
  • Do your best to not react to whatever they’re telling you with shock or judgement. This might be very difficult if you’ve never come across self-harm, but keep in mind that this is a coping mechanism they’re using to deal with difficult emotions – not something to be judged.
  • Acknowledge that you understand that self-harm is their way of coping and you’d like to help them to access support.
  • Resist the urge to control the outcome. You can suggest they get in touch with their GP (don’t do this on their behalf) or encourage them to tell a friend or family member what’s happening. Your Employee Assistance Programme will also be of benefit to you as a manager if you need to speak with someone confidentially about your own feelings, and of course, will benefit your colleague.
  • Offer to sit with them while they contact one of the organisations listed above. Remember, they’re in control of the pace and might need time to think about it. In this case, remind them that the offer stands if and when they feel ready.

Useful contacts

The following charities offer specialised guidance, support and information for people who are self-harming, as well as those who want to help them.

  • Harmless provides a range of services about self-harm and suicide prevention.
  • LifeSIGNS offers online information on, and help for, self-harm.
  • YoungMindsis for young people and their parents, teachers, friends and carers.
  • SelfharmUK supports young people impacted by self-harm.

If you want to find out more about how others are dealing with sensitive issues around workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing, sign up for a Gold Pass for our digital MAD World Summit – taking place on 8 October. This will give you access to our virtual backstage lounge where you can network and share experiences with like-minded employers. We are also running Make a Difference Summit US in Association with Mind Share Partners on 15 October and Make a Difference Summit Asia on 11 November, 2020. Pick and choose the content most relevant to you or attend all the digital events with our Global Pass. You can find out more and register here.

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About the author

Andrea Woodside began her career in wellbeing at work 25 years ago, and has worked with a wide range of industries to support employers to tackle mental health stigma in the workplace, create sustainable solutions for safeguarding their people’s wellbeing, and design programmes which encourage recovery from emotional distress.

Andrea has provided wellbeing consultancy to retailTRUST customers since 2012, and is well positioned to understand the unique needs and challenges of today’s retailers. She served as a Trustee of Mind England and Wales for seven years, and regularly appears in the media to discuss ways in which all employers can create workplaces which promote best practice.


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