NOTE: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the Suicide and Crisis Hotline by dialing 988 or visiting 988lifeline.org
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and recognition of this pervasive issue has never been more important. One of the leading causes of premature death in the United States, suicide is a challenging topic for workers, managers, healthcare providers, and virtually everyone in our society. Understanding the current state of mental health and the factors that contribute to suicide and self-harm can help us better tackle these problems and create healthier, more supportive environments for people of all ages and walks of life.
Suicide: The Latest Data
Because mental health and suicide data can be complex and difficult to quantify, data for these issues lags by at least one or two years. However, there are several facts we can identify to help define the suicide problem in 2023.
First, we know that suicides have reached a 50-year high, with rates rising by 36% in the period between 2000 and 2021. Total suicide deaths reached more than 48,000 in the U.S. in 2021 (the most recent year for which complete data is available), affecting a wide swath of age groups, ethnicities, and other identifying factors. Worse, roughly 1.7 million suicide attempts occurred in 2021, leading to hospitalizations, permanent health problems, and disruptions to families and communities.
In recent years, a host of factors have exacerbated the suicide problem around the world, first and foremost the COVID-19 pandemic. Social isolation, fears of infection, loss of family members or friends, and economic fallout have all contributed to higher rates of mental health risk factors such as depression and anxiety, and reviews of research indicate that these factors likely caused an increase in suicide rates since the pandemic began in late 2019.
Suicide in the Workplace
Though only a small percentage of suicides actually occur in the workplace, a person’s job is still likely to be a factor in suicidal ideation. According to information published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), work-related factors that can contribute to suicide risk include:
- Low pay, job insecurity, and high stress at work
- Access to lethal means on the job (medication, firearms or dangerous environments)
- Long work hours, shift work, night work
- Workplace bullying
It’s also important to note that suicide risks are higher among certain occupations, with construction, law enforcement, healthcare workers, and veterinarians experiencing the highest rates of suicide.
Chronic pain is another work-related factor that contributes to suicide risks. Pain affects millions of American workers every year, especially in high-exertion industries, and can lead to diminished quality of life and severe depression or anxiety. Pain also increases rates of severe fatigue and burnout, both of which are correlated with suicide risks. For some workers, pain can trigger mental health episodes related to post-traumatic stress disorder, potentially leading to thoughts of suicide.
Despite these work-related influences on individuals’ mental health, the workplace can also help mitigate suicide risks. For a majority of Americans and many people around the world, work serves as a central community in the lives of workers—it’s where many people spend the better part of their time, and it’s likely to be a place where workers are in constant or frequent contact with other people. This means that coworkers and supervisors may be among the first to notice signs of mental health challenges or suicidal ideation.
How can workplaces help prevent suicide?
Though workplaces and employers cannot single-handedly solve the suicide problem, they can be a part of the solution. Here’s how employers can do their part in reducing suicide risks.
- Encourage communication and transparency: Workers should be empowered to report their mental health challenges and take the steps needed to address issues before they become severe or life-threatening. Unfortunately, suicidal thoughts carry a strong stigma for many, and removing that barrier can make employees feel safe to discuss their issues with supervisors and seek help. A strong top-to-bottom culture that prioritizes communication and wellness will help workers feel supported and safe at work. Employees should also be encouraged to speak up when they notice colleagues exhibiting signs of depression or suicidal ideation and to check in on coworkers regularly.
- Provide access to mental health support and counseling: Services such as on-site or employer-sponsored mental health counseling provide workers with a convenient source of support for mental health issues. Smartphone apps, mindfulness training, and other solutions can supplement counseling in workers’ daily lives.
- Help workers address chronic pain: A holistic workplace wellness strategy should include solutions to mitigate pain. Hands-on pain-relief therapy, biomechanics training, ergonomic assessments, and strength and conditioning programs can all boost employee fitness and reduce pain levels, helping alleviate the risk of depression and anxiety.
- Provide crisis support resources: In addition to the 988 helpline, there are many support services created to help individuals get through a mental health crisis safely. Communicate these clearly to your workforce and create tangible resources and signage to make sure employees know where to turn during a crisis.
- Provide self-care support resources: Over 6 in 10 office employees suffer from wrist pain, and over half experience repetitive strain injuries. Pain is debilitating, decreasing focus, productivity, and morale—while also causing expensive turnover for employers. It’s time to offer employees some relief. DORN’s Self-Care Plus helps employees stay pain-free and engaged.
Conclusion: Preventing suicide is everyone’s responsibility
Ultimately, strong communication and positive relationships between workers and management can go a long way in helping mitigate mental health issues on the job. Where workers feel supported by their employers and colleagues, they are much less likely to imagine self-harm as a solution to their problems. By combining mental health support, clear communication, and pain-relief solutions, employers can be a key resource for workers even when work is part of their stress.