Suicide Prevention in the Workplace

*** Warning: This article explores the topic of death ***


In 2019, 5,691 suicides were registered in England and Wales. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has yet to release the 2020 figures, but the impact of the pandemic is expected to have taken its toll.

ONS data on moderate to severe depression was released in May 2021. It reveals that depression rates from January to March 2021 were twice as high as the same period in 2020. A fifth of the population was struggling with their mental well-being.

The figures start to mean something when they relate to people you know. In 2020, 6 of my LinkedIn connections experienced the death of a loved one from suicide. This is the most I have been aware of in such a short space of time and the impact of suicide really hit home.

I’ve also received an increase in enquiries from organisations because their employees were taking more calls from distressed and suicidal customers. They wanted to give their staff the skills, knowledge, and confidence to feel prepared for these types of conversations.

Isn’t Suicide a Health Care, not HR or Customer Service Issue?

Whilst the ONS data reveals that unemployment is a critical factor in depression, many people who take their life are employed.

Whilst employers are becoming more aware of the benefits of promoting employee wellbeing, the stigma around poor mental health remains. In many professions, burnout and overwhelm is commonplace. Verbal abuse from customers, bullying by colleagues, harassment from managers and discrimination are also far too widespread.

If a customer feels that their options are limited, your organisation is their last hope, imagine the potential consequences if barriers prevent them from accessing services.

A 2019 ResearchGate report on suicide identified that over half of those who had taken their life had not had contact with their GP for at least 13 weeks. Being employed, living with others, and not diagnosed with a mental disorder, they hadn’t been flagged in the healthcare system.

This research shows that we can’t place all the responsibility for improving mental wellbeing on medical professionals. This is why employers and employees need to be aware of indicators, such as changes in behaviour. Every organisation should be equipped to provide support, both internally and through referral to appropriate specialist services.

In the Mental Health Action Plan 2013 – 2030, World Health Organisation (WHO) member states have committed to a global target of reducing suicide rates by a third. We can all play a part in achieving this goal and now is the time to act.

Creating hope through action is the theme for World Suicide Prevention Day. In organisations where a culture of openness about mental health is fostered and support is offered, the outcomes can be lifesaving.

Taking Action to Prevent Suicides

We can all take action to help people see that there are alternatives to ending their lives. I trained as a Mental Health First Aider, a Suicide First Aider and I have designed a ‘Managing Suicidal Customer Conversations’ training course. Upcoming dates are listed on my Eventbrite Training Page.

I am keen for employers to help reduce the risk. We can all take steps to help employees or customers see that there are alternatives to suicide. With this in mind, I have co-created a Suicide Risk Mitigation and Prevention Policy for organisations to implement. It is free to download and can be tailored to make it relevant to your organisation.

I aim to make it mandatory for all UK businesses to have a suicide prevention policy. To address this, I am chairing a campaign, we intend to gather sufficient support and signatures to lobby the Government. I invite you to follow me on LinkedIn for updates over the coming months.

Other ways of creating hope through action include:

  • Asking twice if someone is OK

  • Listening to understand not to respond or solve problems

  • Not putting rigid time limits on customer service calls to enable conversations

  • Signposting those who share to further support – this could be to the emergency services, the Samaritans, Mind, a GP, or a close friend/family member

  • Playing a role in removing the stigma in talking about poor mental health and suicide

  • Supporting charities helping individuals in crisis by sharing posts on social media, volunteering, or making a financial donation

  • Fostering a culture of care in your organisation

  • Offering support and flexibility to employees facing difficult situations

We can all Make a Difference

Many suicides can be prevented if people in desperate situations can access support. This isn’t something that can be left to WHO member nations or Healthcare professionals. With awareness, compassion, and resources, we can all make a difference.

Author of the article – Helen Pettifer