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NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Employers can and should be taking a more proactive approach to preventing employee suicides, according to one expert.
Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States with more than 47,000 deaths in 2017 and also has a “devastating economic consequence” — costing about $70 billion per year, Katie Connell, Minneapolis-based chief clinical officer of PsyBar LLC, which provides fitness for duty, disability and independent medical evaluations for employers and insurers, said at the Disability Management Employer Coalition Inc. conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on Monday.
“Workplaces are really a place to help provide intervention because co-workers or managers are often in a position to recognize changes in an individual and recognize that something may just not be right,” she said. “It’s not only humane, but it’s also good for your business at large if you promote mental health and you have a healthy workplace. Employees are your most valuable asset, so it should be a responsibility of employers to be part of those prevention efforts.”
In 2012 and 2015, suicide rates were highest among males in the construction and extraction occupational group — 43.6 and 53.2 per 100,000 civilian noninstitutionalized working persons, respectively — and highest among females in the arts, design, entertainment, sports and media group —11.7 and 15.6 per 100,000, respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials recently expressed increasing concern about suicides and opioid-related deaths in the construction sector. But there are guidelines specific to high-risk sectors such as construction and mining that are better developed than other industries because of the prevalence of suicide, Ms. Connell said.
“It’s the working in isolation, the disruption to sleep cycles, working the long hours at night that are all sometimes contributing factors to the high risks,” she said. “And the pressures and the stakes are high.”
Historical risk factors include a prior suicide attempt, a history of abuse, neglect or trauma, a history of mental health issues, chronic disease or disability and a family history, while acute risk factors include suicidal statements or expressions, feelings of hopeless or failure, current mental health issues or behavioral or mood changes, she said.
“This is a great place for communities and workplaces to provide education to managers, to co-workers, on knowing what the warning signs are either verbally or behaviorally of individuals that may put somebody at increased risk for suicide,” she said. “Although it’s important to think about mental health issues, there are many other important factors at play.”
For example, physical health problems and job/financial problems were common contributing stressors to suicide ideation among both individuals without mental health conditions — 23.2% and 15.6%, respectively — and those with mental health conditions — 21.4% and 16.8%, respectively, according to CDC data.
Employers need to ask themselves several questions to gauge their readiness to deal with suicide risks: Do they have a workplace suicide prevention program, what policies or procedures do they have in place for at-risk employees, do they have a plan for after a suicide or an attempted suicide, do they have an employee assistance program or mental health program visible at the workplace, do they provide education or training on suicide prevention and mental health, do they have specialized suicide prevention training for human resources, managers and EAP providers and do they have a culture of caring?
For employers that have EAP or training programs, “how familiar are your employees with these resources?” she said. “Is it part of your culture to promote mental health awareness? Is it part of your communication to talk about suicide? It’s not just having these policies and procedures in place (and) checking the boxes. It’s really putting them into practice and being active in suicide prevention.”
Suicide affects individuals differently, and some colleagues of a person who committed suicide may choose to cope by not coming to the workplace, she said.
“Your workplace has to be prepared to support everybody in the environment in the manner that is needed to help each and every person get through the aftereffect, the shock of the suicide,” she said. “The first 72 hours after a suicide are critical, and before a suicide ever happens or impacts your workplace, you want to have assembled your care support team and know what your resources are. That shouldn’t be happening once a suicide has taken place.”
Violence-driven fatalities remain a critical problem for employers contending with how to reduce deadly incidents at work, experts say.