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Article: “Supportive workplaces really matter and save lives”

In this blog by NSPA Lived Experience Influencer, Andy Willis, we explore suicide prevention and the workplace. Andy reflects on his experience of suicidal ideation whilst working as a teacher, shares his views on suicide prevention in the workplace as a trade union official and offers advice to organisations on how to better support employees to reduce the risk of suicide.

Please be advised, this article discusses suicide ideation and may be upsetting to read.

“As someone who has experienced both sides of suicide prevention in the workplace, I strongly believe that workplaces play a very important role in suicide prevention. After all, millions of people in England spend a significant proportion of their life at work.

An employee living with suicidal thoughts

“It was the last day of a dreadful, interminable summer term of mental health decline and increasingly disordered thinking, which had been largely masked by conscientious professionalism; combined with a stubborn refusal to either share my emotions or to seek help.

“I sat crumpled at my desk opposite a concerned teaching colleague who was wishing me well for the summer break, completely oblivious to the fact that in, just three weeks’ time, I’d make two attempts to die by suicide whilst an inpatient on a psychiatric ward.

“It was my first episode of mental illness and I not only lacked any insight, with which to counter the pernicious impact of severe depression and anxiety, but I carried with me my own internal dialogue of myths and prejudice in relation to mental illness. Workplace burn out and management changes beyond my control were but a backdrop to a psychological situation that was far more complex.

“I sat alone at my desk for a few minutes and remember a range of circling, uncontrolled and punishing emotions that included ruminating thoughts of past regret and catastrophizing a future where I would lose my job and my girlfriend. Engulfed in irrational guilt, frightened, and already detached and isolated in my struggle, I felt incurable and a burden on my parents who had borne the brunt of my symptoms and seemed but helpless observers of my decline. I can now reflect that I was also beginning to suffer from the early stages of psychosis, alongside the suicidal ideation that had been intermittently present in recent weeks.

Progress and the need for further change

“My personal situation was played out decades ago in the 1980’s and I recognise and applaud the progress that has been made in terms of challenging the stigma associated with mental ill-health and those workplace settings that provide genuine support for the mental well-being of the employees, as part of the duty of care that all employers have to their workforce.

“That said, there still remains significant stigma, myths and prejudice; particularly in providing support for certain diagnoses and in relation to the topic of suicide prevention there is still much to be done.

How can employers do better at supporting employees with their mental health?

“As a trade union official, I saw far too many situations where unsupportive workplace cultures exacerbated workplace stress, contributing to mental health issues. For example, I witnessed many situations where it seemed inappropriate performance management and capability procedures were applied to individuals experiencing mental distress, which led to the person feeling pushed out of their job.

Be inclusive

“The importance of a genuinely inclusive work place, with supportive management behaviours, cannot be underestimated in relation to suicide prevention; particularly in challenging economic times with millions now experiencing the pressures of increasingly insecure and uncertain lives.

Encourage conversations with employees

“In my experience, helpful workplace environments encourage open sharing, in relation to mental wellbeing, through supportive supervision and appraisal structures, where honest self-reflection is not judged but appropriately supported. Supportive workplace settings, where mutual concern for the wellbeing of others is exemplified by those that hold the positions of power, is very important to the cause of suicide prevention.

Wellness Actions Plans are a practical way of supporting the mental health of team members at work. Guidance on this can be found on Mind’s website.

Ask the question

“In my view, for workplaces to be truly supportive, staff and managers should feel able to ask the question of their colleagues about suicide and then respond in an appropriate way, such as through signposting for support.

“I well remember a teaching colleague who was concerned about my mental wellbeing having the personal courage to ask me if I was having any suicidal thoughts. It was a relief to be able to share that I was having thoughts of dying by suicide and it prompted me to seek the sort of support that I needed.

“It is a myth that asking if someone is suicidal will prompt them to have such thoughts. In my lived experience, those thoughts are either there or they are not and, on the one occasion when I was asked this question at work, to me, it represented validation and care.

Concluding thoughts

“The factors, thoughts and emotions that combine to result in a death by suicide are personalised and unique to that individual.

“Not all experiences of suicidal thoughts are linked to mental illness, but certainly an inclusive workplace setting that reduces stigma, supports positive mental health and where managers are genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of the work force are all very important factors that help meet the challenges of suicide prevention. 

“Suicide awareness and prevention should be an essential component of all workplace training.

“It should be an ambition that everyone is comfortable discussing their mental health, their wider wellbeing and importantly being able to ask the question in relation to suicide; with signposting, to that essential support, as required.

“The development of truly supportive workplace environments really does matter and will certainly save lives.”

Recommendations for further reading: Charlie Waller Foundation, suicide prevention in the workplace blog.

About The Author

Andy Willis joined the NSPA’s Lived Experience Network in 2021. He is passionate about co-production and utilising his lived experience of severe mental illness to help others; whether that be as a Peer Support Worker, a Recovery College Peer Trainer, a member of the PD Hub’s LEAP or working closely with Northamptonshire Healthcare (NHS) Foundation Trust’s Lead for Suicide Prevention.