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Suicide Prevention an employers role

You hear stories of course, but in over thirty years in HR it’s never happened on my watch. I’ve not been called to a situation where an employee has taken their own life at work. Like everyone else in HR I have dealt with the consequences of the death of an employee, but normally the death has occurred away from the work place.

Why mention something that is thankfully an infrequent event? Well, the reality is that every suicide is a preventable death, and a large number of those preventable deaths are also probably the result of an undiagnosed or untreated mental health condition.

As a cause of death, suicide does not discriminate, but with employers already experiencing the difficulties of a labour shortage created by an ageing population and low birth rates it is perhaps worth noting that the WHO research shows that suicide is the second biggest cause of death globally in the 15-29 age group. Precisely the people that many organisations are trying to recruit.

During 2016 79% of global suicides were in low and middle-income countries, those countries that have lower levels of awareness about suicide and mental health in general and where these, particular, health issues may be a taboo subject.

A mental health condition is a major contributing factor to suicide levels, but some one who consumes a lot of alcohol is also more likely to take their own life than someone who is a moderate drinker or teetotal. Which is one of the reasons why Public Health England and Drinkaware have today, launched the Drink Free Days campaign, which encourages people to have two alcohol free days each week

There is increasing acceptance that every organisation will benefit from proactively managing both the mental and physical health of their employees, but the WHO are also suggesting that employers of all types should also have a strategy for preventing people taking their own life whilst they are at work.

Many of the steps the WHO suggest that employers could take are similar to those that a parent of an inquisitive toddler would do to ensure that their home was safe.

  • early identification, treatment and care of people with mental and substance use disorders, chronic pain and acute emotional distress;
  • reducing access to the means of suicide (e.g. pesticides, firearms, certain medications);
  • introducing alcohol policies to reduce the harmful use of alcohol;
  • training of non-specialized health workers in the assessment and management of suicidal behaviour;
  • support for employees who has attempted suicide by working with them and their health care professionals to create an appropriate return to work plan.
  • make sure that employees know that gossip about other employees’ mental health is not acceptable.

If an organisation wants an effective suicide prevention strategy it must involve a wide range of people in its creation. Contributions should be solicited from human resources, training, health and safety, and occupational health professionals, as well as trade unions, and external mental health care providers. Such is the complexity of the issue that no single approach is likely to be universally applicable.

More information about mental health education is available in the Work Place Learning Centre

During a career as a human resources and employee development professional that started in 1981 Michael Millward has worked around the world in a wide range of businesses from start-ups to major conglomerates. His industry experience includes, local and national government, manufacturing, financial services, retail, distribution, hi-tech, e-commerce.

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