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Article: Suicide prevention in the workplace is everybody’s business

An NSPA Suicide Prevention Blog article by Abigail Hirshman, Director of Charlie Waller Workplace.

In the latest of our NSPA Suicide Prevention Blogs, we hear from Abigail Hirshman, Director of Charlie Waller Workplace at The Charlie Waller Trust, about suicide prevention in the workplace and what employers can do to support their employees.

There are many reasons why an employer might seek advice about mental health and wellbeing in their workplace. It’s fair to say these reasons have changed over the years, from being driven mostly by the need for business efficiencies to a more employee-centred approach, with employers recognising the beneficial impact this has on employee wellbeing and engagement. However, one cry for help that has remained consistent over the 20 or so years I have worked in this field is the call that comes after there has been a suicide in the workplace.

“They always seemed absolutely fine”

The questions that then follow are invariably along the lines of ‘was there anything we could have done?’; ‘how could we have not known/seen this coming?’; ‘they always seemed absolutely fine’. The reasons behind a suicide are extremely complex and, whilst their experiences at work may have indirectly contributed, for the most part we can never know what leads a person to take that decision.
For some people, talking about their mental health is easy, but for a lot of people it isn’t. To admit that we are going through a bad time, that we find it hard to cope, or that we have dark thoughts can be extremely daunting. This is further compounded in some industries where it is perceived that asking for help is a weakness and will damage your career prospects.

“There is no one answer to suicide prevention in the workplace; there have been some excellent guides in recent years”

Following these tragic events, some organisations rush to introduce a policy which, whilst well meaning, often fails to address cultural issues that are not necessarily a direct cause of the suicide, but might have been a factor in the individual’s decision. There is no one answer to suicide prevention in the workplace; there have been some excellent guides in recent years – for example, Business in the community toolkit – that provide a detailed approach to how this can be managed, and we recommend all workplaces refer to these when developing their approach.

In support of these we recommend some key areas to focus upon:

1) Senior leaders talk more about their mental health

Evidence consistently shows that leaders who are open and authentic about the challenges they have faced positively impacts both implementation and take up of wellbeing provision, leading to greater awareness and openness. Furthermore, their active endorsement of activities relating to mental health and wellbeing at work set the tone for a culture that recognises this as an issue that affects everyone.

2) Invite guest speakers to talk about their experience of suicide

Some of the most powerful events I have attended are when someone talks about their lived experience. The sharing of something so personal really does open up conversations and increase levels of empathy and understanding

3. Provide mental health sessions at the team level

Typically, companies train managers in supporting their direct reports or have a couple of people across the business trained as mental health first aiders. However, in most workplaces, our day-to-day interactions are with our colleagues and peers. Offering sessions to teams on awareness, spotting signs in themselves and each other, plus knowing how to open the conversation when we have spotted something is incredibly valuable. This helps develop a culture where mental health is seen as everybody’s responsibility.

4. Recognise and respond to your pinch points

Whilst good work is beneficial for our mental health, equally there can be things we experience in the workplace that negatively impact our mental health. These are varied, and can include excessive work demands, a breakdown in relationships due to bullying, and frequent change and uncertainty.

Often, organisations recommend that employees who are affected speak to their EAPs (Employee Assistance Partners). However, this is a blunt instrument approach that fails to recognise the serious impact these situations can have or the fact the problem might be at the organisational rather than the individual level.

All of these are deemed as psychosocial risks and organisations should have effective stress risk assessment processes in place to mitigate the impact these might have, particularly on more vulnerable employees.
Alongside this, the processes designed to handle other less common workplace events – such as capability procedures, disciplinaries, suspension and redundancy – often fail to consider their impact on individuals. These processes can be incredibly stressful for all those involved; they are often created with a view to being effective procedures without incorporating a person-centred element that addresses how they might affect the mental health and wellbeing of the individual on the receiving end.
Reviewing your pinch points and adapting your processes to consider the wellbeing impact can help to avoid additional anxiety and, whilst the outcome might be the same, it means the route to getting there doesn’t lead to unintended consequences.

5. Provide tailored support for those at greater risk

The research tells us that certain roles and factors are associated with greater suicide risk. These include workers in low skilled, and some skilled, positions associated with insecure employment, and predominantly male workforces with a relatively high incidence of workplace accidents and lack of consistent social support. High rates of alcohol and drug misuse are also associated with increased risk of suicide.

According to the CIPD Health and Wellbeing survey, 25% of organisations do not provide any information about suicide risk and prevention in their wellbeing programme. Whilst there are some excellent short programmes that are free and available to access, it is especially important for those workplaces with a workforce at higher risk to provide this type of awareness.

In addition, providing focussed information and guidance on a range of wellbeing issues that are relevant to your workforce (e.g. financial, drugs and alcohol, gender issues, women’s health) can also be extremely helpful. These can be both an educational and a social activity and help reduce the feelings of anxiety and overwhelm that can be triggered when coping with additional challenges.

About The Author

Abigail Hirshman

Abigail has over twenty-five years’ experience in mental health and wellbeing at work from a clinical, academic and delivery perspective with Masters degrees in both Psychotherapy and Psychology. Prior to joining the Trust, Abigail was the Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing for Acas.

Abigail co-chairs the mental health group for the Council of Work and Health and is an active member of several mental health at work advisory groups. She has sat as the workplace expert for the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines on mental wellbeing at work and is regularly invited to chair and present at national conferences.

Abigail has established relationship with global brands from the public, private and third sector providing consultancy support on the development and implementation of pragmatic tailored strategies to support mental health in the workplace.

For more information on The Charlie Waller Trust visit or follow them on Twitter: @CharlieWallerUK.