Suicide Prevention as a Workplace Health and Safety Issue
Frank King

A suicide occurs every 11 minutes in the United States. These incidents touch every industry. However, some industries that have felt the impact of suicide in recent years—construction, extraction, mining, fishing, farming, forestry, and wait for it…healthcare.

These industries are a kind of perfect storm of all the risk factors that we know contribute to suicide risk,” says Sally Spencer-Thomas, lead of the Workplace Task Force within the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a rock star in the world of suicide prevention in the workplace, my mental health mentor, good friend and a co-author with me and Sarah W. Gaer on our book on men’s mental health, “Guts, Grit and the Grind, a Men’s Mental Mechanical Manual.” (Go to for details, and it is also available on Amazon.)

That perfect storm that Sally spoke of involves several factors that may contribute to such a high suicide rate. First, workers in these high at-risk industries, including healthcare, in the U.S. are predominantly white, middle-aged males, who have the highest rate of suicide among the general population. In addition to this demographic data, elements within these industries can play a role in workers not talking about issues that can lead to suicide or not seek help if they need it. “The culture of stoicism and self-reliance in these industries for example, certainly makes for dedicated and hard workers, but it also increases risk for suicide in that this occupational group is least likely to reach out when there’s a problem,” says Spencer-Thomas. She emphasizes that when discussing suicide in your workforce, it’s important to look beyond mental health to other factors that can contribute to suicide, including job strain, sleep disruption, bullying or harassment, and other workplace and environmental stressors.

Preventing Suicide with all of this in mind, what can safety and human resource professionals, supervisors and employers do to help prevent suicide and get workers the resources and assistance they need? A major roadblock to addressing this issue is the stigma that has surrounded the issues of depression and suicide and the reluctance to talk about it. For many years, these have been unmentionable subjects, making it all the more difficult for those who may be contemplating suicide to get the help they need.

After all, big boys (and girls) don’t cry, much less share their feelings. One of the most effective ways to do this is to simply talk to workers about what is going on in their lives so that they feel they have an outlet to discuss issues they are experiencing. “There’s an enormous taboo around this topic that is extremely unhelpful,” says Norman Ritchie, director, VPSI Group LLC. “The only way to break through that is to talk about it with your workforce and make it the subject of safety meetings and company communications.

Ritchie encourages management, supervisors, workers and safety and human resource professionals to remember that everyone on their workforce, male or female, is a human being with their own issues and difficulties, and to do everything they can to connect with them on a personal level. “You have to look at the humanity of the workforce,” he says. “By starting a conversation and being aware of those types of things, if there are people who are in a difficult situation, it provides an opportunity to bring that to the surface.” Along with the danger that workers may pose to themselves, Ritchie emphasizes that unless these issues are discussed, these situations can present hazards in the workplace as well. “The worse you’re doing personally, the more risk you present to yourself, your colleagues and to the work,” he says.

There is a concept called presenteeism, meaning that the person is physically present at work, but mentally absent, which often makes them a risk to themselves, and given the particular work environment, a risk to coworkers and patients as well. Spencer-Thomas echoes the need for better communication about this issue and creating an environment where workers are comfortable discussing personal difficulties and are provided a supportive network that will guide them to the resources they need.

She emphasizes that it is important for leadership to set the tone around this issue by making suicide prevention a health and safety priority. “We don’t know that this is happening with a person unless we have conversations about it. There’s no X-ray, there’s no diagnostic test, no check engine light (wouldn’t that be convenient) that tells us, the only way in is through conversation,” she says. “For workers to feel they can open up about it, we have to have a certain level of trust.” Developing that trust is one area where Spencer-Thomas sees the potential for safety professionals to have a big impact.

The environments where she has seen safety cultures thrive are those in which workers are actively looking out for each other’s safety and well-being. Like a scuba diving partner or a battle buddy, you watch each other’s back, and in this case brain as well. By applying that same mentality into psychological safety and well-being, safety and human resource professionals can help create a culture in which workers are comfortable starting conversations with each other about the personal issues they are facing. When having a conversation with a colleague about personal difficulties, keep these three keys in mind to work toward a positive result. 1. Listen. Be a good listener for your colleagues. Often, all a co-worker may need is for someone to listen and understand what they are going through. During the process of talking through the problems they are facing, people may be able to find a solution.

The QPR Institute, SafeTalk and Working Minds offer guidance on training personnel on what to look for in someone who may be at risk for suicide and how to start a conversation. 2. Ask direct questions. Difficult as it may be, it’s important to be direct about the topic of suicide and to approach it in a way that is compassionate and empowering, to let the person know that someone is there for them to provide partnership and support throughout their struggle. 3. Direct them to qualified resources. Once you’ve started the conversation and brought underlying issues to the surface, the important next step is to put the person in touch with the appropriate resources.

Organizations such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Working Minds and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provide tools and treatment resources for those in need of assistance. For those organizations with employee assistance programs, Spencer-Thomas emphasizes the need for employers to ensure that suicide prevention resources are accessible, and personnel are trained in state-of-the art suicide intervention skills. According to Suicide Awareness Voices for Education, 80 to 90 percent of those who seek treatment for depression are treated successfully through therapy and/or medication. By taking these steps and being proactive in the way they approach issues like depression and suicide, employers, workers and safety and human resource professionals can help stem the tide of suicide in healthcare, while providing individuals the assistance they need.

Frank King