In the run up to World Suicide Prevention Day (10 September 2021), suicide remains a devastating problem. According to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 1,603 suicides occurred between April and July last year in 2020. Meaning thirteen people ended their life every day.
The real tragedy is that suicide can be regarded as a lasting solution to temporary feelings of despair, when people can be helped to recover once the right support is given. Unfortunately, suicide remains a highly awkward topic of conversation. This means that for people who are feeling desperate, tragically, it can seem like an easier option than seeking help.
Employers and managers therefore have a vital role to play when it comes to identifying and proactively supporting those at risk. Here are three ways to help.
1. Be aware of risk factors
Men are three times as likely to take their own lives than women, with men aged 45-49 most at risk. However, suicide rates amongst younger people, especially women aged less than 25 years old, 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, as 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.
Stressful life events, such as a bereavement, relationship break-up or divorce, getting into debt or being made redundant, can also put people at risk. So it’s important to be mindful of people who might be feeling vulnerable and ensure they’re aware of any support services they can turn to, be this access to professional counsellors, via the company’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), OH department, a charity helpline or their GP.
2. Develop managers to help
In the post-pandemic world, where people feel more isolated than ever, and many are working from home, managers have a vital role to play when it comes to staying connected to their teams and asking them individually 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This is especially important if they can see changes in the person’s behaviour, such as them becoming quieter and more withdrawn, defensive, tearful, forgetful or error-prone.
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. 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 the support services on behalf of the employee, as often it’s easier for someone to accept help than to proactively seek this.
3. Create a caring culture
Managers should continue to check-in with anyone who has sought 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 we used to enjoy for connecting 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. Schedule a weekly meeting with no agenda, for people to just chat and socialise with each other the way they might during a break or at lunchtime in the workplace. Or by 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.
To help reduce the stigma associated with suicide, my clinical team has created a free suicide prevention animation, which you can share with managers. It explains the warning signs to look out for and what they can do to help.
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About the author
Louise Abbs is managing director of PAM Wellbeing and supports some of the UK’s best-known employers to create and deliver mental health initiatives. A qualified counsellor, her expertise lies in creating preventative mental health strategies that stop people from becoming too sick to perform or attend work. With 15 years in the industry, she is responsible for overseeing PAM’s Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and Psychological Services, which support over a million people in the UK with their mental health. Find out more at PAM Wellbeing’s stand at this year’s MAD World Summit.
If you need support and you’re in the UK, you can contact the mental health charity, Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or by visiting www.mind.org.uk or Samaritans by calling or by calling 116 123 (free, day or night, 365 days a year) or by visiting www.samaritans.org.
If you need support and you’re in the US, you can contact Mental Health America by calling 1-800-985-5990 or by visiting www.mhanational.org.
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