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April 2 — Suicide in the workplace is increasing, particularly for workers in certain industries, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Workplace suicide in its most tragic form recently played out in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, where investigators believe co-pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed the aircraft into the French Alps. Evidence has come to light since the incident that Lubitz had suffered from depression during his pilot training.
The NIOSH report, “Suicide in U.S. Workplaces, 2003–2010,” found that between 2003 and 2010, a total of 1,719 people died by suicide in the workplace. Workplace suicide rates generally decreased until 2007 and then sharply increased, contrasting with non-workplace suicides, which increased over the entire study period, Hope Tiesman, NIOSH Services Sector Program assistant coordinator and an author of the study, told Bloomberg BNA March 31.
According to Tiesman, the study identified several occupations to be at high risk for suicide: protective services employees, such as law enforcement officers, medical doctors and soldiers; employees in farming, fishing and forestry occupations; and workers in installation, maintenance and repair occupations. Overall, firearms were used in 48 percent of workplace suicides, but this differed by occupation, the report, published March 16 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found.
While depression is not the only warning sign of suicide, it factors into 70 percent of the people who attempt or die from suicide, John Greden, executive director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center, told Bloomberg BNA April. 1.
Better screening and better interventions would be the first step for organizations to help employees who might be at risk, Greden said. However, he said, many individuals are still battling the stigma surrounding depression.
Greden recommended that the first step to reducing the risk of suicide in the workplace is to involve leadership in supporting programs that address mental health by emphasizing that it's just as important as physical health. “We want employees that are not only healthy, but happy,” he said.
According to Greden, this can be accomplished through comprehensive health programs that offer adequate coverage for mental health services, followed by effective communication and resources for employees who appear to be at risk. These practices give the message to employees that seeking help is “a sign of strength, not weakness,” he said. “These are treatable problems,” Greden added.
One new strategy companies are employing to combat potentially harmful mental health issues is to set up in-house “behavioral intervention” teams, attorney Carolyn Reinach Wolf, director of the Mental Health Law Practice at Abrams Fensterman in Lake Success, N.Y., told Bloomberg BNA April 1.
The system consists of an online form that employees can use to report co-worker behavior that is concerning, such as substance abuse, depression or suicidal thoughts, Wolf said. Once the form is submitted to the intervention team, which often consists of HR, senior management and sometimes law enforcement, the worker is “triaged” for risk of suicide and an appropriate intervention is implemented. According to Wolf, this can include something as simple as a referral to medical help.
This approach is a positive, supportive system that will not punish an employee for needing assistance, she said.
Wolf said that workplace safety is paramount. The privacy and confidentiality of an individual's condition must increasingly yield to the security of the community, she said.
“Over and over again in every one of these tragedies, everyone knew and no one connected the dots,” Wolf said. “These things never happen in a vacuum,” she said.
While screening employees for mental illness may be controversial, Greden said, there are simple tools that health plans can use, “and if it’s handled in a straightforward way, they work.”
Greden said that managers should be checking in with employees to assess their workloads and stay informed on the mental state of their staff. Such strategies can not only be life-saving but also are cost saving, he said. Depression is the second most costly illness in the U.S. after heart disease, Greden said, and helping employees deal with it saves expenses related to productivity loss, absenteeism, use of health care benefits and turnover.
According to Tiesman, the NIOSH report found that there currently is not enough information on the effectiveness of workplace suicide prevention programs. The report concluded that the upward trend of suicides in the workplace underscores the need for additional research.
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The NIOSH study is available at http://www.ajpmonline.org/inpress.
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