A taboo too far? Supporting colleagues expressing suicidal feelings in the workplace

By Christopher Watkins


The words ‘stigma’ and ‘taboo’ are fast becoming something of a cliché in the world of mental health and employment, yet few could argue that there are some issues that managers and HR professionals feel uncomfortable dealing with. It is hard to think of a more difficult situation than a colleague expressing suicidal feelings in the workplace.

Last month saw the Office for National Statistics release data on the number of deaths recorded as suicide in 2013[1], showing suicide rates continuing to track upward since the recession in 2007. The groups at most risk (and seeing the greatest increase) are men between the age of 30 and 59; the group most likely to be in full-time employment. Suicide remains the most common cause of death for men under 35.

These figures are only the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that only 1 in 10 attempts are fatal, and the majority of people experiencing suicidal feelings do not go on to attempt to take their own life. Collecting accurate statistics on this is next to impossible, but it is realistic to assume that in an organisation of 500 employees at least one will be experiencing suicidal feelings at any one time.

Colleagues having serious discussion

With recent ‘stigma busting’ campaigns working to encourage employees to be open about their mental health, it is reasonable to expect the number of employees expressing suicidal feelings to their manager or HR to increase. Our Business Disability Forum Advice Service has noticed this increase. While no manager or HR professional wants to find themselves having this conversation, the increasing openness of employees about these feelings presents an opportunity for intervention, support and ultimately prevention.

If you work in HR, this is an issue you are likely to come across at some point in your career – and it pays to be prepared. Navigating the initial conversation may be an intimidating experience. You are likely to feel out of your depth, but try to understand that the other person is probably feeling exactly the same way, particularly if this is something they are not used to speaking about. Don’t panic, judge or make assumptions; take the person seriously and accept that while you may not be able to help in the immediate term, you are very unlikely to make things worse.

Establishing boundaries and responsibilities at this early stage is absolutely essential. This is not something you can keep to yourself and it is not your place to become the person’s counsellor. When an employee tells you personal information about their mental health and has asked you to respect their confidentiality, it is safest to do so; but, you should still speak to HR (or BDF’s Advice Service) about the situation without identifying the individual. It may be appropriate to breach the employee’s confidentiality if they are at risk or their health is affecting their employment, and whoever you speak to should be able to advise you on this.

If they are not already receiving support from elsewhere, refer the employee to appropriate help. Depending on the circumstances, this could be to their GP, local mental health services, your EAP or Samaritans. If you feel that someone is at immediate risk of harming themselves, you should always contact the emergency services by dialling 999.

Finally, remember that suicidal feelings are rarely a ‘one-off’; this is an on-going situation that you may be supporting the colleague through for some time. These feelings may also be indicative of mental ill-health, so after the initial meeting and any urgent action required, you should sit down with the employee to explore the ways in which you are able to offer support. They may also need reasonable adjustments to their role, such as flexible working, more regular 1:1 meetings with their line manager, or a Tailored Adjustment Agreement

Christopher leads our Mental health: Handling serious situations masterclass, which equips HR and diversity professionals with the skills and knowledge they need to handle unusual and complex situations, including colleagues who are exhibiting suicidal feelings or unusual behaviour.

BDF members can also contact Christopher for advice on cases they are dealing with on christopherw@businessdisabilityforum.org.uk or 020-7089-2482


[1] http://ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/suicides-in-the-united-kingdom/2013-registrations/suicides-in-the-united-kingdom–2013-registrations.html

[2] https://www.disabilitystandard.com/resource-category/resource/tailored-adjustment-agreement/

Event review: Managing difficult conversations at work

On 13 November, we were joined by Members, Partners and guest speakers Tony Cates, Head of Audit, KPMG UK, Aisling Tuft, Recoveries Manager, Enterprise and Alastair Campbell, writer and political commentator at the launch of our new guide on ‘Managing difficult conversations’ at work.

019

The event was hosted by KPMG and Stephen Frost, Head of Diversity & Inclusion explained that KPMG had sponsored the guide because they understood that being able to manage difficult conversations is fundamental to building and deepening business relationships both internally and externally.

016Our chair for the evening, Business Disability Forum (BDF) Associate Phil Friend OBE, suggested that conversations about bereavement, divorce, poor performance are challenging enough, but when you add disability or potential mental ill health into the mix the thought can scare even the most experienced line manager.

BDF Chief Executive Officer Susan Scott-Parker OBE explained that the guide was developed after we identified a need for up-skilling line managers to have honest and meaningful conversations with their teams. BDF’s aim is to get the practical tool into the hands of 4.5 million employees who work for our Members and to stimulate an ongoing interest in face to face training on the subject.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur panel found the guide useful in:

  • Providing constructive feedback during tricky conversations
  • Reminding managers that in spite of busy workloads sometimes setting aside the time for a difficult conversation and giving people time to speak in their own words will reap business rewards
  • Helping people to effectively prepare for difficult business discussions with people both inside and outside the organisation

The other recurring theme of the evening was how to have conversations about mental ill health at work. Alastair Campbell spoke openly about his own mental illness and the value of working with employers including the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair who understand the importance of judging employees on the wider performance and not on mental health episodes.

This advice was backed up by employers like KPMG and Deloitte who have supported directors and senior partners in openly talking about periods of mental ill health and recovery. This newfound openness has interested the business press who are starting to proactively report on positive examples of mental ill health at a senior level.

We left the event feeling that our guidance and the commitment of our Members in raising awareness of mental ill health at work, was contributing to a bigger conversation and a sea change in how we manage difficult conversations at work.

Stat of the day: Mental health in the legal profession

By Angela Matthews

The following statistics come from a study conducted by Lawcare, a support charity for the legal profession, earlier this year. They asked over 1,000 legal professionals including lawyers, barristers and legal executives in the UK about their experiences of stress in their workplaces. The following are some of the statistics:

  • 75 per cent of lawyers are more stressed now than they were five years ago;
  • 70 per cent said that their working environment was stressful;
  • 63 per cent felt that they are not working to the standard that they want to achieve;
  • 47 per cent occasionally felt at ‘breaking point’;
  • 45 per cent said they do not get enough support;
  • 31 per cent drink more than the recommended units of alcohol;
  • 14 per cent take prescription drugs each day to help cope with stress.

Reasons cited for stress included:

  • Heavy workload;
  • Poor management;
  • Not feeling appreciated;
  • Unattainable targets;
  • Long hours;
  • Poor pay;
  • Job insecurity.

Lawcare’s press release said, “Lawyers are, as a rule, high achievers who have high expectations of themselves. They do, therefore, have to be careful that they do not become stressed as a result of trying to live up to those expectations.”

I thought I should end on a positive note – 45 per cent of respondents said that, despite it being stressful, where they work is friendly. But then I thought that’s around 550 legal professionals who are working in an environment that they think is unfriendly. So maybe that’s not so positive after all. So, instead, I’m going for… it’s nearly Christmas!

Stat of the day: More stress

By Angela Matthews

Continuing with Friday’s ‘stat of the day’ theme of stress, AXA have also released some survey results (reported here). AXA surveyed 500 Small/Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and found that, although 48 per cent of employees feel stressed at work at least 2-3 times per week, 63 per cent of those organisations do not provide training for their managers on how to recognise the signs of stress, anxiety or depression among staff. Additionally, 73 per cent of those organisations do not have programmes in place to encourage positive mental health in the workplace.

Reasons for stress included:

  • Money – 34 per cent;
  • Work – 31 per cent;
  • Family – 18 per cent.

It could be argued that these reasons largely reflect the social and economic circumstances that the UK is currently experiencing, but it is interesting to reflect on Friday’s reasons and statistics where 76 per cent of respondents also said that their stress was due to work and money. This is perhaps not a massively dissimilar figure to the combined 65 per cent that accounts for work and money above (although considering that AXA have looked at SMEs, and only 500).

I also think it is interesting that the American figures from Friday came from a clinical study conducted within the realm of psychiatry, whereas this UK study comes from a position of mental health being a workplace issue that highlights a gap in training and employer support.

Stat of the day: Stress

By Angela Matthews

Research by the American Psychological Association released in July this year looked at the causes and symptoms of stress. You can see a breakdown of some of the statistics below:

Pie chart showing levels of stress

Note that a whopping 76 per cent of respondents said their stress was due to work and money. Additionally, 48 per cent say that their sleep is affected. All of the above elements represented in the chart could potentially have consequences in the workplace – physical symptoms, psychological symptoms, sleeplessness (this could have an impact on concentration, alertness, or performance, for example), and work/money issues. This is confirmed by the 48 per cent of respondents who said that stress has an impact on both their personal and professional lives.

The study also gives the most commonly reported ‘symptoms’ of stress. These could be indicators or changes in behaviour for managers to look out for in their employees:

Physical symptoms:

  • Fatigue (the most common, affecting over 50 per cent);
  • Headache;
  • Upset stomach;
  • Muscle tensions;
  • Change in appetite;
  • Teeth grinding;
  • Feeling dizzy.

Psychological symptoms:

  • Irritability or anger;
  • Feeling nervous;
  • Lack of energy;
  • Feeling tearful.

Bringing the topic to the UK, an article in the Metro this morning showed that workers spend around a year to a year-and-a half of their careers off sick. The main culprits? Stress and depression. And – the thing that made me gasp most – a third of full-time employees report that there is no sickness policy in place to protect them.

You can read the article here.

Stat of the day: Mental health in older age

By Angela Matthews

The World Health Organisation (WHO) continues to consider age and disability – particularly mental health in older age.

The WHO gives examples of factors in age that may impact and/or contribute to disability or long-term conditions. These examples include that for those who already have a disability when they reach older age (which, I’m afraid, the WHO considers to be anyone over the age of 60), limited mobility and pain can increase. For others, a number of social factors can feature – grief and bereavement or reduced income due to retirement, for example. The WHO warn that such factors can lead to isolation and loss of independence. What evidence do statistics give for this? (Note: The following represent disability worldwide.)

  • 20 per cent of older people have a mental health or neurological condition – the two most common being depression and dementia. This accounts for almost 7 per cent of older people’s disabilities;
  • Anxiety affects almost 4 per cent of people over 60;
  • Depression affects 7 per cent of people over 60;
  • 25 per cent of all deaths by self-harm are of people over the age of 60.

The WHO also notes that those with heart disease have higher rates of depression. This is an important observation on the relationship between mental and physical health and how, where a mental health condition such as depression goes untreated or is not given the appropriate attention, the positive or ‘successful’ outcome of the physical condition can be limited.

One of the WHO’s recommendations for trying to prevent mental health problems in older age is to encourage “active and healthy ageing” which, they say, should allow for integrated and balanced lifestyles. As there are an increasing number of people in the UK who remain in employment much beyond the age of 60, it is worth employers considering how their own policies and practices may be affected by older workers requesting to work flexibly to help achieve a better work/life balance. From next year, flexible working rights will be extended to allow anyone to make a flexible working request (i.e. not just those with parenting or caring responsibilities). How this will be managed by employers, or if there will be any increase in requests from older workers at all, we are yet to see.