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World Suicide Prevention Day

10 September 2021 is World Suicide Prevention Day. With one in a hundred deaths worldwide as the result of suicide, global activities will be directed at raising awareness on this most difficult of issues. The day aims to spread the word, reduce the stigma and encourage well-informed action around suicide. 

The latest  statistics show that in 2018 there was a 10.9% increase in deaths by suicide in the UK and in 2019, there were 5,691 suicides in England and Wales and 833 suicides in Scotland.  

Mental health in the workplace has gained greater significance due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our working lives: homeworking, furlough and lockdown forced profound changes on all of us.   

The training and appointment of Mental Health First Aiders is becoming increasingly common in both the public and private sectors. It’s origins lie in Australia at the start of the 21st century. It seems a timely point to consider research on the impact of Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) in the UK workplace.  

In a report from 2018, the HSE wanted to study the effectiveness of MHFA in the workplace. The subsequent report acknowledged a number of gaps in the knowledge due to the lack of published occupationally-based studies. On a positive note, it confidently asserted that there was consistent evidence that MHFA training raises employees’ awareness of mental ill-health conditions. However, there is no evidence that the introduction of MHFA training  in workplaces has resulted in sustained actions in those trained, or that it has  improved the wider management of mental ill-health in UK workplaces.   

I was also surprised to discover that workplace suicides  are excluded from HSE death statistics. Hazards, the UK campaign group, is urging the HSE to implement  measures to record, inspect and prevent work-related suicides. Their wish is to bring the UK in line with other countries  where work- related suicides are monitored, reported and inspected – such as in the USA. They are calling on the Government to rectify ‘a grievous blind spot’ that excludes suicide from the list of work-related  accidents  and cite international studies that have established causal connections between work, working conditions, work -related stress and suicide ideation. In the UK, the 2017 national survey of suicides by occupation found that suicides in England were disproportionately high for men in the construction sector, and for women working in the health professions. 

The Hazards friendly campaign magazine references what happens in France; when a suicide attempt takes place in the workplace; it is immediately investigated by safety inspectors as a work-related accident and the burden of proof is on the employer to prove that it is not work-related.  

This presumption of causality is meant to protect the employee (when the attempt did not lead to death) or his or her family. It circumvents the need for them to engage in legal action in order to prove the employer is liable. Sadly, one in every five employee suicides reported to the social security authorities (Sécurité Sociale) is officially recognised as being work-related. In addition, incidents of work-related suicide are generally followed by an in-depth investigation of working conditions at a company (by independent occupational health experts) to ensure that other employees are not at risk. 

Given that any other death connected to the workplace would have to be inspected under RIDDOR it does seem strange that a workplace suicide is not subject to any external investigation process in the UK.  

The TUC also wants employers to ensure that they have processes to help identify individuals at risk, support those people and raise awareness around the complex issues surrounding suicide and highlighted that the risk of suicide is often highest after a person is under threat of disciplinary action.  

Really thinking about World Suicide Prevention Day has caused me to reconsider the impact that work related issues can have on an employee’s mental health. As an experienced HR practitioner and employment lawyer I am constantly reviewing my practice and this is day is an important reminder to us all, that employers have an ongoing duty of care, and of the risks involved for example, of suspending an employee whilst an investigation is taking place which can often happen.  In that event, at the earliest stage, the employer should explain that the suspension is not a presumption of guilt and make plans to ensure the employees well-being. In some cases, it may even be appropriate to ask the employees permission to contact a person to ensure that they have some support while at home.  

Finally, Public Health England (PHE) in collaboration with the Samaritans and Business in the community has produced a Suicide Prevention Toolkit which is a very good starting point if you are inspired to take further action within your business in regard to suicide prevention. There is always more we can do. 

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