Suicide in the workplace is fairly uncommon, however South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SAGAD) reported in 2021 that there are 23 known cases of suicide in South Africa every day, and for every person that commits suicide, 10 have attempted it. Wherever a worker may commit suicide, beyond being a tragic loss of life, it has a weighty and lasting impact on their colleagues and the whole organisation.
Employers are in a unique position to help
Employees typically spend one third of their lives at work, placing employers in a unique position to be able to help prevent suicide through education and an essential social and emotional support network. The best foundation for suicide prevention is a holistic approach to health and wellbeing in the workplace. In other words, creating a work environment that values its employees and promotes emotional wellbeing through respect, open communication and a sense of belonging – as well as encouraging employees to seek help when they need to. Bullying, harassment and intimidation in the workplace have a significant impact on stress at work and can increase the risk of suicide. So can work-related psychological stressors.
“Employees typically spend one third of their lives at work, placing employers in a unique position to be able to help prevent suicide…”
Busting suicide myths
In the main, mental health specialists agree, it is a myth that people who are suicidal want to die. The fact is, the majority of people who feel suicidal do not actually want to die – they just want the situation they are in or the way they are feeling to stop. This is why talking through other options with them at the right time is so vital. Here are eight further myths about suicide as published by UK suicide support group, Samaritans. Knowing the facts could help you identify and help an employee or colleague who is suicidal.
“In the main, mental health specialists agree, it is a myth that people who are suicidal want to die.”
1. Myth: You can’t tell when someone is feeling suicidal
Fact: Suicide is complex and how people act when they’re struggling to cope is different for everyone. Sometimes there are signs someone might be going through a difficult time or having difficult thoughts, although you might not always be able to spot them. These emotions may be more difficult to spot if you’re seeing less of the colleagues you’re close to, face-to-face. Signs to look out for:
- Feeling restless and agitated
- Feeling angry and aggressive
- Feeling tearful
- Not replying to messages or being distant
- Not wanting to talk to or be with people
- Finding it hard to cope with everyday things
- Being tired or lacking in energy
- Not wanting to do things they usually enjoy
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope with feelings
- Talking about feeling hopeless, helpless or worthless
- Talking about feeling trapped by life circumstances they can’t see a way out of, or feeling unable to escape their thoughts
- A change in their usual routine, such as sleeping or eating more or less than normal
- Engaging in risk-taking behaviour, like gambling or violence
2. Myth: You can’t ask someone if they’re suicidal
Fact: Evidence shows asking someone if they’re suicidal could protect them. Asking someone if they’re having suicidal thoughts can give them permission to tell you how they feel and let them know they are not a burden.
3. Myth: Talking about suicide is a bad idea as it may give someone the idea to try it.
Fact: Suicide can be a taboo topic. Often, people who are feeling suicidal don’t want to worry or burden anyone with how they feel and so they don’t discuss it.
But, by asking someone directly about suicide, you give them permission to tell you how they feel. People who are struggling or have felt suicidal will often say what a huge relief it was to be able to talk about what they were experiencing. Once someone starts talking, they’ve got a better chance of discovering options that aren’t suicide.
4. Myth: People who talk about suicide aren’t serious and won’t go through with it.
Fact: People who die by suicide have often told someone that they do not feel life is worth living or that they have no future. Some may have actually said they want to die.
It is possible that someone might talk about suicide as a way of getting attention, in the sense of calling out for help, but it is important to always take someone seriously if they talk about feeling suicidal.
5. Myth: If a person is serious about killing themselves then there’s nothing you can do.
Fact: Often, feeling actively suicidal is temporary, even if someone has been feeling low, anxious or struggling to cope for a long period of time. Getting the right kind of support at the right time is so important. In a situation where someone is having suicidal thoughts, be patient, stay with them and just let them know you’re there. Remember, if you think it’s an emergency or someone had tried to harm themselves- call emergency services.
6. Myth: You have to be mentally ill to think about suicide.
Fact: 1 in 5 people have thought about suicide at some time in their life. And not all people who die by suicide have mental health problems at the time they die.
However, many people who die by suicide have struggled with their mental health, typically to a serious degree. This may or may not be known before the person’s death.
7. Myth: Most suicides happen in the winter months.
Fact: Suicide is complex, and it’s not just related to the seasons and the climate being hotter or colder, and having more or less light. In general, suicide is more common in the spring, and there’s a noticeable peak in risk on New Year’s Day.
8. Myth: People who say they are going to take their own life are just attention seeking and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Fact: Talking openly about suicide to a loved one, colleague or professional can help someone work through their thoughts and help them find a way to cope. People who say they want to end their lives should always be taken seriously. It may well be that they want attention in the sense of calling out for help and helping them get support may save their life. Being able to talk openly about suicide can help someone work through their thoughts and have a better chance of discovering options that aren’t suicide.
“There are several practical steps that can be taken to educate and support employees.”
Practical steps to educate and support employees
There are several practical steps that can be taken to educate and support employees. Key elements of a workplace suicide prevention programme can include:
- Education and training on mental health, including suicide awareness for all employees, especially line managers. Employees should feel comfortable in approaching their line manager for help. In turn, managers should have the confidence to be able to respond appropriately.
- Internal communications and induction programmes that ensure employees are aware of the easily accessible resources and support mechanisms available to all employees and their families. Lack of control over work tasks and decisions, monotonous or repetitive jobs, the high psychological demands of work, a disparity between effort and reward are all factors that can increase the risk of suicide.
- Ensuring that the organisation’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) service providers and HR employees have had specialised suicide awareness and prevention training.
- Ensuring that suicide and crisis helplines with national reach, such as LifeLine and SAGAD’s Suicide Prevention Line, are signposted across the workplace.
- Instituting clear policies and procedures, as well as practical guidance to help employees who need support around issues including their mental health, physical health, gender-based violence and financial insecurity. This need not be over-elaborate, especially for small organisations, and could be included as part of other personnel policies. Such workplace policies should be communicated to all employees across the organisation.