Worker Fatalities Rates Decline, but Worker Suicide Rates Increase
A recent report by the Bureau of Labor statistics reveals that companies are losing more and more employees to suicide—and they don’t really know what to do about it.
This might not be news to you: suicide rates in the U.S. have been on the rise in many age groups, especially teenagers and young adults. However, suicide rates have also been climbing among employees in the workforce—even when worker fatality rates are dropping.
A report from last month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics said that suicides among workers for 2018 totaled 304—an 11 percent increase from the previous year and the highest number since the bureau began tracking the data 26 years ago.
Not only are families losing loved ones, but companies are unsure on how to address the problem. A Washington Post article dives into the conversation.
“Ten years ago, most companies saw suicide as a personal or medical issue, and would say it has nothing to do with work,” said Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and board president of United Suicide Survivors International, a prevention advocacy group. “I was banging my head against the wall trying to convince companies to talk to me. Compared to now, when I’m getting calls from major global conglomerates seeking me out, looking for answers and strategy. There’s almost too much to do.”
It's often difficult to discern one contributing factor to a person’s suicide, but recent studies on relationships, work environments, and employee mental health do know one thing: a person’s workplace culture and environment can indeed affect that person’s mental health.
So executives are asking: how can we help employees? How can we counsel and support co-workers and those who witnessed the death? What should we say publicly and how much should be disclose internally?
One situation that gained a significant amount of press was when a Facebook employee jumped from the fourth floor of a company building last year in Menlo Park, California. His death incited many accusations of harsh work environments for some of the company’s foreign employees. The controversy got even more heated when a Facebook coworker who shared his criticism about the event and was fired shortly afterwards. Facebook representatives later confirmed the co-worker was dismissed but said it was not because he spoke out about the suicide and work conditions.
Larry Barton, a threat and risk consultant for several Fortune 500 companies, acknowledges the high number of employees contemplating suicide—but he says companies might be starting to be more comfortable with at least reporting the issue. He said:
“We’re talking about really difficult, complicated situations. I’m getting two to three calls per week now from companies dealing with someone struggling with suicidal thoughts. The upside of it is you’re seeing employees and companies getting to the point where they are willing to discuss the problem of suicide at work.”
While the topic is still a widespread issue, companies and organizations are starting to brainstorm ways to address the problem and raise awareness. Last year, many US suicide prevention groups released their first “National Guidelines for Workplace Suicide Prevention” through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The guidelines provide recommended practices such as annual events that highlight resources available to employees for mental health and suicide prevention, risk mitigation, and reducing toxic work environments.
Other groups have also published a detailed guide for managers coping with the aftermath of suicide and a “blueprint for workplace suicide prevention.”
However, there’s something else to consider when looking at the 304 suicides from 2018. As in past years, the agency cautioned the 304 number, saying it probably undercounts the total because they mostly include those that happen either at the work site or off-site while someone was engaged in work.
But the reality is: determining such relationships are difficult, and the count does not include ambiguous deaths such as drug overdoses.
Beyond just workplaces, the greater suicide problem affects close to a million people every year. Since 1999, suicide rates in the U.S. have steadily increased, climbing 33 percent in the past two decades. More than 47,000 now kill themselves every year, and over a million attempt to do so.
Suicide rates are highest among construction workers, actually—and this includes all suicides, in the workplace or not. The problem is most prevalent among men, with a rate 2.5 that of the overall national average for suicides among adult makes.
Researchers attribute the high rate of male suicide in the construction industry to chronic exposure to physical danger/injury; common use of painkillers, drugs, and alcohol; the transient nature of employment; and the fact that most are middle-aged men with less education—all demographics of high suicide risk. Read Occupational Health and Safety Magazine’s article on the topic for more information.
Luckily, groups have started doing something about the rising numbers among construction workers. In 2016, the construction industry convened a task force to figure out how to tackle problem. Two years later, after the CDC highlighted suicide rates by industry and made a nonprofit organization, Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which is providing suicide prevention strategies to companies and workers.
The second- and third- highest male occupation groups are the arts, design, entertainment, sports and media; and installation, maintenance and repair, according to a 2018 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This kind of progress, though, is largely a result of a higher-up or an executive that makes it a priority. Spencer-Thomas—who helped in the construction non-profit group’s creation and now serves as an advisory member—said:
“Often it requires a high-level leader to step forward and say this matters. It can’t be shoved off to the wellness people or HR folks. For things to change, it takes a top executive saying this is important to our company, our mission and to me.”
The problem persists among all industries and groups of individuals with all demographics, however. Companies do have a part in the way workplace culture and health resources affect employees. Companies need to start making employee mental health a priority and working to understand how to best support employees that go beyond getting your flu shot every year.