Workplace suicide: Prevention Is everyone’s business

Heather Hahn

Professionals at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are available around the clock. Call 800-273-TALK or text “help” to 741-741

Suicide rates in the United States are the highest they’ve been in more than 30 years, claiming some 42,000 lives annually. While most people take their lives in or near home, suicide on the job is increasing.

In concert with National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September, it’s important to reduce the stigma associated with mental health conditions and increase opportunities for workers to feel safe in reaching out for help.

Americans work more hours than any people in the industrialized world, take fewer vacations and retire later in life. In fact, the average U.S. employee spends 47 hours per week on the job, and 25 percent of American workers put in more than 60 hours. Longer work weeks increase the risk for stress, anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

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These factors, combined with a mental or chronic health condition, affect at-work suicide rates for the worse, and recent studies show that financial hardship, hopelessness, social isolation and disappointment often push people over the edge.

While it seems that the American economy is showing an upturn, many workers still fear job loss. Layoffs create added pressure and heighten feelings of personal sadness, worthlessness and helplessness. Even employees who escape a layoff but see coworkers getting the dreaded “pink slip” experience these same feelings.

In efforts to boost the national economy, many companies try to increase growth and production, yet they don’t have the resources to raise salaries, provide bonuses or maintain workloads without saddling employees with more duties than they reasonably can handle.

Even if occupational and economic stresses play a role in the decision to commit suicide, why do it at work?

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The idea is that people who choose workplace suicide may hope to keep family and loved ones from finding them after the fact. Research shows there’s a link between on-the-job suicide and occupations that provide access to the means — a gun, prescription medicines, toxic chemicals.

This may explain why people working in protective-services occupations — law enforcement officers and firefighters — are 3.5 times more likely to take their lives at work than those in other professions. More than 80 percent of these suicides involve a firearm.

Other professions with high at-work suicide rates include physicians and nurses, who often neglect their own health to care for others and who have access to lethal doses of medications. A rise in on-the-job suicides by automotive and other repair and maintenance professionals may relate to their work with chemical solvents.

Because workers spend most of their waking hours on the job, companies have a real opportunity to take a stance for the mental well-being of their employees. Following are some suggestions.

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• Incorporate mental well-being into incentive programs for physical health and encourage employees to seek professional help without fear of job loss or discrimination.

• Discuss company changes with employees to decrease fear of the unknown and reduce stress.

• Promote a healthy life-work balance and discourage workers from putting in too many hours on the job. Many employees take work home after a long day at the office, robbing them of time to unwind mentally and physically.

• Educate employees on how to recognize the warning signs associated with suicide and where to turn for intervention.

• Make workers feel accepted, valued and respected when coping with mental health conditions.

Despite the most valiant efforts to prevent suicide on the job and to create a healthy and positive work environment, implementing these strategies alone may not always prove successful.

Make sure employees are aware that help is only a phone call or text message away. Professionals at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are available around the clock. Call 1-800-273-TALK or text “help” to 741-741.

Together, we can reduce America’s disturbing increase in workplace suicide.

Heather Hahn is an assistant professor of counseling at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth and is a licensed professional counselor-supervisor (LPC-S) trained to work with individuals, families and groups in treating mental, behavioral and emotional problems and disorders.