Need to know:
- A clear commitment to employee wellbeing can help to erode the stigma around suicide and mental ill-health and encourage staff to engage with support services.
- Communication and training is key to ensuring employees and line managers have a good understanding of the benefits available to them and how to access these.
- Organisations can also look to develop mental health pathways to deliver comprehensive support to staff.
The causes of suicide are complex, yet the development of a supportive workplace culture can help to ease employees’ fears about discussing any issues they are experiencing.
Louise Aston, wellbeing at work director at Business in the Community (BITC), which published two toolkits for employers alongside the Samaritans and Public Health England in March 2017, Reducing the risk of suicide and Crisis management in the event of a suicide, says: “If [employees] don’t feel like they can disclose that they have suicidal thoughts or that they are suffering from mental health distress, then they don’t have an opportunity to access the appropriate support.”
Vocal and sustained support from senior leaders can help to reinforce an organisation’s commitment to employees’ overall wellbeing and create an environment that encourages staff to make use of the support systems available to them. Vanessa Sallows, benefits and governance director at Legal and General Group Protection, says: “[It] stems from the top. If managing directors, chief executives, and the board are open, they create that culture of honesty and openness. They have to live and breathe it, it has to be really embedded within the environment.”
Awareness initiatives and programmes such as mental health first-aid training and mental health champions, can also increase understanding about suicide and mental ill-health in the workplace, equipping staff to recognise early-warning signs, have empathetic conversations, and to signpost colleagues in need of assistance to support services.
Access to support
There are a number of employee benefits that can play a role in suicide prevention. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can provide staff with support on a range of issues both in and outside of the workplace, such as financial concerns, legal matters and relationship problems. As such, positioning an EAP as a life-support service rather than an assistance programme can encourage staff to engage with it, says David Price, managing director at Health Assured. EAPs can also offer support for certain behaviours that can indicate a risk of suicide, such as alcohol or drug abuse.
Line managers can also make use of an EAP’s manager referral facility to direct employees to support. Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance, says: “One of the services under the employee assistance programme that is often overlooked is manager referrals, which can be done both formally and informally while retaining confidentiality for the employee unless they give explicit consent to share information.”
However, if a manager is to make use of this service, then it is first vital that they are aware of it. Beate O’Neil, head of wellbeing at Punter Southall Health and Protection, says: “Unless [they] have used an EAP before then [they] might not know what it is, even as a line manager, and if [they] don’t know how to use it then [they’re] not going to be able to promote it.”
In addition to ensuring line managers are fully aware of how an EAP and other available support services can be utilised, organisations can communicate these benefits to staff via a variety of methods, including during induction and training sessions, displaying posters in communal areas and on the back of toilet doors, and via the intranet. These can be accompanied by contact information for external charities and helplines, such as the Samaritans. It is important to consider whether all members of the workforce are covered by these communication channels, including employees who work remotely, such as field workers, says Brendan Street, professional head, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) at healthcare and emotional wellbeing provider Nuffield Health.
EAPs provide staff with access to a designated number of telephone, and in some cases face-to-face, counselling sessions, but employees that require further assistance, for example in- or out-patient treatment for a mental health condition, can access this through certain private medical insurance (PMI) schemes.
Mental health pathways
Organisations can also look to develop mental health pathways to deliver comprehensive support to staff. This would involve co-ordinating the services offered by health and wellbeing providers, such as private medical insurance (PMI), EAP, occupational health, on-site healthcare, and the early intervention services available through group risk benefits, says Dr Wolfgang Seidl, workplace health consulting leader, UK and Europe at Mercer Marsh Benefits. “It all needs to be connected and used in a meaningful way,” he adds.
Whatever support mechanisms for mental health an organisation may have in place, its efforts can be undermined by a lack of clear workplace policies, says Street. “[An employer] needs policies and procedures that underpin mental wellness, [such as] anti-bullying, domestic violence or financial insecurity, because [it] can’t have mental wellness thriving unless other areas are supporting it,” he explains.
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted for free at any time on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.org.