Nearly 80 percent of employers offer programs to promote the physical well-being of their employees.
They may want to expand wellness programs to address depression and other mental health issues, based on a disturbing trend documented in a recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
“Every 20 minutes, someone commits suicide in the United States,” says Bert Alicea, licensed psychologist and vice president of EAP and work/life services for Health Advocate Inc. in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. “Given that rate, there is a possibility of a suicide at your workplace.”
The study found that slightly more than 1,700 employees committed suicide in the workplace between 2003 and 2010, for an overall rate of 1.5 per one million workers. Suicides declined between 2003 and 2007 but then spiked during the remaining years of the study. Non-workplace suicides totaled 270,500 during this period, for a rate of 144 per one million people.
Among the significant findings about workplace suicides:
Rates were higher for men (2.7 per one million).
Workers aged 65 to 74 (2.4 per one million) were more likely to end their lives.
The profession with the highest suicide rate is protective services such as police and firefighters, followed by farming, fishing and forestry.
The human toll is devastating, but there also is a high economic cost. A 2010 analysis estimated the price of depression at $210.5 billion, with 45 percent to 47 percent attributable to direct costs; 5 percent to suicide-related costs; and 48 percent to 50 percent to workplace costs.
There often are more questions than answers on this sensitive topic. Why would a person kill him or herself, and why in the workplace? The journal article suggests:
Occupation can largely define a person’s identity and psychological risk factors for suicide, such as depression and stress, can be affected by the workplace. Also, as the lines between home and work continue to blur, personal issues creep into the workplace, and work problems often find their way into employees’ personal lives.
Clare Miller agrees with this assessment. She is director of the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, which is part of the American Psychiatric Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia.
“The line between work and home more and more is nonexistent,” she says. “More of us work at home part time or bring work home to do in the evenings, so there is no line of demarcation.”
In other words, home is no longer a safe haven from work-related stress, and personal issues also enter the workplace. “Employees may be dealing with other things in their lives, such as divorce or separation; financial hardship; or the death of a family member,” Alicea says.
The increase coincides with the recent recession, and workplace bullying also can play a role.
“We did a study not long ago that found that asking people to do more with less can increase stress,” Miller says. “We also have found more incidences of bullying, which can be an outgrowth of poor organizational practices.”
Education is essential
Regardless of the cause, employers have an opportunity to educate and encourage employees, and intervene if necessary. As the Journal article states:
Suicide is a multifactorial outcome and therefore, multiple opportunities to intervene in an individual’s life — including the workplace — should be considered. A method that may reduce the burden of suicide suggested by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Research Prioritization Task Force was increasing the number of people trained for suicide assessment and risk management. Implementing effective and evidence-based programs for the training of these individuals is pivotal. The workplace should be considered a potential site to implement such programs and train managers in the detection of suicidal behavior….
A successful strategy has two key components — education and observation. Although society has come a long way, many people still attach a stigma to mental health issues. “The objective is to create awareness and change mental health from a taboo subject to something that can be openly discussed,” Alicea says.
Health Advocate Inc. offers a number of printed resources to its clients and a partnership for Workplace Mental Health offers a number of free resources to all employers.
“We have program called the Right Direction Initiative for employers to use to raise awareness of depression, which tends to be a leading cause of suicide,” Miller says. “Not every person who has depression is suicidal, but it can be a key indicator. We have a portal through which employers can get communications materials, posters and information for company newsletters. We encourage them to use it as a tool to get employees started talking about mental health.”