Health and Wellness, Injuries and Illness, Special Topics in Safety Management

Suicide in the Workplace: A Troubling Trend

Could any of your employees be considering suicide? Could they be planning to do it at the office or on the jobsite? It’s a prospect no one wants to consider, but workplace suicides can and do happen.

Suicide prevention

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The number of suicides spiked during the 2008–2010 recession—to perhaps as many as 10,000 worldwide—but the number of workplace suicides continued to grow during the economic recovery.

That number of workplace suicides reached an all-time high of 291 in 2016. Of the 5,147 American workers who died on the job in 2017, 275 died by suicide. There were fewer suicides than homicides; but suicide claimed more workers’ lives than aircraft incidents, electrocution, or explosions and fires.

Researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) have looked at the demographics and occupations behind workplace suicides.

BLS analysts found that workplace suicides occur most frequently among whites, men, and 35- to 44-year-olds.

Men accounted for 93.7% of workplace suicides in an analysis of occupational fatality figures for 2011–2013, and women accounted for 6.3%. However, the breakdown by gender mirrors the split for all occupational fatalities: 92.4% involved men, and 7.6% involved women.

A recent analysis of all suicides found that the top three occupational groups for suicide risk among males are construction and oil and gas extraction; arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media; and installation, maintenance, and repair.

Agricultural workers also showed high rates of suicide. The 2012 suicide rate was 20.4 and the 2015 suicide rate was 17.3 per 100,000 for male agricultural workers.

Focus on Construction

The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) described construction work as the “perfect storm” of risk factors for suicide. Those risk factors include:

  • Construction workers in the United States are predominantly white, middle-aged males who have the highest rate of suicide among the general population;
  • In 2018, 38% of construction workers in the United States were between ages 45 and 64, while the highest suicide rate in the United States was among males between ages 45 and 54; and
  • Elements of the construction culture can play a role in workers not talking about mental health or other issues that can lead to suicide or not seeking help if they need it.

Another risk factor for construction workers is opioid abuse during or following the use of the drugs as a means of pain management for a legitimate on-the-job injury. Opioid abuse is associated with a 75% increased likelihood of a suicide attempt.

Suicide among construction workers prompted the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA) to launch the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention that includes the ASSP, several construction trade labor unions, and industry groups like the Associated Builders and Contractors and the Associated General Contractors of America, as well as several local and regional chapters of industry groups. The CFMA formed the alliance in 2016 because industry members were alarmed by figures for workplace suicide reported that year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Alliance members so far have published articles and public service announcements, distributed videos and other resources, and hosted local and regional summits for employers concerned about the issue.

Having an employee assistance program (EAP) to assist employees experiencing mental health issues can help, but only if employees use it. However, the best EAP in the world cannot counteract a culture of stoicism that discourages workers from seeking the help they need. Emphasizing a culture of safety and wellness, including mental health, may enable an at-risk employee to seek help before it’s too late.

Construction supervisors and managers can work toward a culture that supports distressed workers:

  • Supervisors and safety managers can offer a suicide prevention toolbox talk to try to destigmatize seeking help;
  • Supervisors and coworkers can listen and provide support while at the same time restrict access to potentially lethal means; and
  • Employers can also display posters in offices and at worksites describing warning signs of suicide risks and listing available resources.

In the event of a suicide, supervisors must also respond by addressing trauma among coworkers and by stemming any potential “social contagion” that could lead others to attempt or commit suicide.

Veterinarians at Risk

Veterinarians are also at high risk for suicide. They are much more likely to commit suicide than the general population, according to recently published research. Male veterinarians are 2 times more likely to commit suicide and female veterinarians 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

Pressures in the veterinary profession that can contribute to suicide include:

  • Exposure to high levels of occupational stress, such as long working hours, high workloads, and sometimes unreasonable pet owner expectations;
  • Having to communicate bad news to pet owners; and
  • Poor work/life balance, professional isolation, and student debt.

Police Officers, Too

The stress of law enforcement work can put police officers and detectives at risk, too. Law enforcement officers usually have ready access to firearms.

Financial pressure, sleep deprivation from shiftwork, mandatory retirement ages, and the stressful nature of police work may contribute to law enforcement officers’ risks. Researchers believe police officers are twice as likely to have symptoms of depression than the general population.

NIOSH researchers found suicide was more common among active-duty officers than former or retired officers. Earlier research found that most suicides among working police officers occur in the 5 years before retirement eligibility.

Questions Remain

The BLS, NIOSH, and private sector researchers have a clear understanding of aggregate data on workplace suicides. However, there is little information available about individual suicide cases, which makes it difficult for researchers to tell employers about:

  • Causes, or the complex of causes, that lead to a workplace suicide;
  • Whether and how much workplace suicides have work-related causes; and
  • Which suicides of workers who work from home are work-related.

Some economists and labor advocates have blamed changing economic and working conditions for a rise in workplace suicides, citing anecdotes of worker suicides at offshore electronics manufacturers or calls from e-commerce warehouses to respond to employees contemplating or attempting suicide. Economic insecurity or working conditions may be additional stressors, but the causes of suicide usually are more complex, according to researchers.

What Should Employers Do?

Employers should know about risk factors for suicide that can include the following:

  • Predominantly male workforces, such as in construction and oil and gas extraction;
  • A culture of risk-taking, which may include young men, but is common in fields like finance and law enforcement;
  • A culture of drug and alcohol abuse; and
  • Workforces largely composed of temporary workers, such as in construction, farming, mining, and oil and gas extraction, in which workers may be away from home and lack a sense of community.

While employers may not be able to alleviate all the stressors that lead to worker suicides, they can watch, listen, and encourage troubled employees. Employers should encourage workers to learn coping and problem-solving skills and seek treatment or counseling. One of the most important measures employers can take is to address the stigma of seeking help.

Anxiety, depression

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A Deeper Look at the Data

While whites and men aged 35–44 experienced the highest relative levels of workplace suicide, those over 54 years of age and the self-employed experienced the highest relative suicide risk (for both on- and off-the-job suicides).

Non-Hispanic whites had a higher propensity for workplace suicide than blacks or Latinos. While Asians accounted for 2.8% of all workplace fatalities, they accounted for 5.5% of workplace suicides.

Workplace suicides have been rising sharply since the mid-2000s, but the rise in workplace suicides is consistent with the rise in the overall number of suicides in the United States. With the number of workplace suicides rising while the overall number of occupational fatalities have been falling, workplace suicides account for a higher percentage of workplace deaths.

In 1992, there were 205 workplace suicides—about 3% of the 6,217 total workplace fatalities that year. There were 282 workplace suicides in 2013, representing about 6.2% of the 4,585 total workplace fatalities. Suicides on the job accounted for 5.3% of the occupational fatalities in 2017, the most recent year for which the BLS has final data.

Workplace suicides are included in the BLS’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) if they meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • Death arose from an injury on the work premises while the worker was there on duty;
  • Worker’s death occurred away from the work premises, but the worker was engaged in work activity, such as performing work at a client’s premises; or
  • Death was related to the worker’s work status—for example, a suicide at home that can be definitively linked to work.

Unintentional overdoses on the job are not counted as suicides but are counted as a different type of occupational fatality. There are nearly as many unintentional overdose deaths as there are suicides.  In 2017, there were 217 fatal overdoses at work and 217 in 2016.