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/

Stat of the day: Occupations of people with ‘severe disabilities’

By Angela Matthews

Apologies for the statistics silence. They are piling up, and I will get around to writing them. It was imperative that I write a disability stat for International Day of Disabled People, though – the theme of which this year is Break Barriers, Open Doors: For an inclusive society and development for all. This morning’s statistics release from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is particularly relevant.

ONS’ data looks at the occupations of disabled people whose daily activities are “limited a lot” (which ONS also refer to as “severe disability”). There are seven classes of job types. Class 7 refers to the ‘routine’ occupations such as labourers, bar staff and lorry drivers, and Class 1 refers to the managerial and professional occupations such as lawyers, doctors and architects. The data finds that the largest number of disabled people occupy Class 7 (routine) roles, and the smallest number occupy Class 1 (managerial/professional) roles. This, as ONS advocate, suggests that significant barriers to higher skilled professions remain for people with severe disabilities.

Another interesting aspect of the data is that the number of severely disabled people working in ‘routine’ (Class 7) or ‘semi-routine’ (Class 6) jobs is greater than the number of severely disabled people who are unemployed. ONS suggest that this indicates that disability does not prevent people with severe disabilities from accessing working altogether, but that it just appears that certain types of work are more accessible than others for those with severe disabilities – an issue in itself.

What could be the reasons for this? If we look to earlier data from ONS (mentioned in a previous ‘Stat if the Day’ some months ago), disabled people indicated what they felt the barriers to employment are. The ‘top’ barriers were:
Lack of qualifications;
Difficulties with transport;
Modifications or adjustments to the job;
Attitudes of employers.
Could ‘routine’ positions be more accommodating to disabled people due to many of these roles often being able to operate in shift or flexible patterns which can often be switched among employees if flexibility is required? We see this in the Advice Team often where some employers have told us during a query that they have moved shifts around as an adjustment for an employee’s disability. In some cases, this has allowed for an employee to work only afternoon/evening shifts when mornings are difficult due to  side-effects of medication or where a disability tends to fluctuate (for example).

Do any of the four barriers bulleted above become more of an issue as the grade or level of occupation increases? How much is it possible to sustain flexibility at higher levels of occupation, how much is down to an employer’s attitudes, and how much is due to the lack of provision of – or understanding of – reasonable adjustments?