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8th May, 2024

Christy Houghton
Author
Christy Houghton
Job Title
Digital Content Writer

Content warning: suicide, self-harm, death.

Suicide is the act of intentionally taking one's own life. The subject of suicide is highly sensitive – it’s crucial to approach it with care. It’s a serious public health problem in the UK at present and is entirely preventable with the right support.  

National statistics suggest one-in-five people have suicidal thoughts and one-in-15 people attempt suicide in their lifetimes. Suicidal thoughts and mental illnesses don’t always lead to an attempt, but it creates a higher risk. 

According to Champion Health, the percentage of people in the UK workforce experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm is at nine per cent in 2023 – a one-per-cent increase on last year. That means, a business with 1,000 employees could see 90 of them die by suicide. 

Sarah Anderson, Founder and Chief Executive of The Listening Place 

509944M - OG image - Sarah Anderson

Sarah Anderson asks managers to look out for how their employees are coping with their work, because the fear of job loss, fear of redundancy, undergoing disciplinary action, and other possible difficult consequences that occur in the workplace, can prompt stress and negative thoughts. 

Some potential triggers of suicidal thoughts, other than work stress, include bereavement, or relationship breakdowns happening outside of the workplace. But these problems don’t leave people’s minds once they enter their workplace, and they can have an impact on their work. 

According to Sarah: “People who are suicidal are almost certainly depressed, and that causes absenteeism from work, poor concentration, self-isolation from colleagues, poor sleeping patterns, and other symptoms of depression which can negatively impact them at work.”  

Suicide in the UK 

Suicide is known to be the most common cause of death in men under the age of 55 and all adults under the age of 35. 

Sarah Anderson suggests people in certain occupations will be at a higher risk than others. “For example, the construction industry, frontline health workers, and police. Reasons for this, as well as their jobs being very stressful, are often about access to means.  

“So, frontline health workers, construction workers, and police all have more access to the means to take their own lives. Therefore, restrictions on buying paracetamol in shops are not particularly relevant when it comes to vets and healthcare professionals and so on.” 

Normalising honest conversations 

Before you can help a suicidal employee, you need to be able to recognise the signs that someone is struggling. People who are depressed often put on a smiling face for others and keep their real feelings hidden. 

Sarah says identifying when someone needs support starts with everyday conversations.   

We tend to say: “How are you?”, but it's really a bit of a verbal punctuation we use when we meet people. And they might generally respond with “I’m fine, how are you?”  

“I think it's always worth repeating the question and saying “No, how are you really?” And then people will often give a more honest and accurate answer, if they think you're truly interested in how they are.” 

Be curious and ask questions  

We tend to shy away from asking people tough questions in case we upset them. However, it normalises the conversation and chips away at the taboo. Sarah suggests being blunt and asking the question is better than not talking about it at all. 

If you suspect a colleague is having suicidal thoughts then Sarah advises: “You need to ask the person whether they're feeling suicidal, because asking someone about suicidal thoughts most certainly does not put the idea into someone's head. If you were feeling fine today and someone asked if you were suicidal, you wouldn’t suddenly think it was a good idea. Whereas, if you are feeling suicidal, it'll be a huge relief to just be able to say so.” 

“You need to ask in a way that allows them to tell you how they’re feeling – open questions are the best for this situation.  

“Use curiosity to empower the individual. For example, you might say something like “When you say that, I wonder if…” So, you're curious about everything that's being said, but you don't dominate the conversation.” 

The power of listening 

This is not a conversation you can have with other people around or if you’re in a rush. Sarah states: “You need to find a quiet place where you're unlikely to be disturbed. 

“You need to ask that person how they're feeling and if they would like to talk. It’s about exploring their feelings and whether there is anything in particular that is distressing them. 

“And it's important to fully engage with the person by giving them your full attention. Turn off your phone, and any laptop notifications, and if possible, go somewhere you’re unlikely to be disturbed by knocks at the door. 

“You need to be clear that you're there to listen and not to judge or give advice. And show that you care by being warm and empathetic. And you need to listen actively, picking up on any verbal and physical cues that indicate distress.” 

Common mistakes to avoid 

In an effort to show empathy and understanding during these conversations, people can sometimes offer similar stories or feelings they’ve had, when someone is talking about their own feelings. However, this can have the opposite of the desired impact.  

“Actually, your circumstances are not the same as theirs. And so, it's important to continue to ask about their feelings, rather than trying to make comparisons with your own,” says Sarah. 

According to the CEO of The Listening Place, the main mistake most employers make is to not actively listen to the person and to ignore the situation. 

She advises: “If your employee does have suicidal thoughts, don't run away, don't panic, and don't change the subject. Ask whether they have an actual plan to end their life. For example, how? When?  

“This allows you to understand the immediacy of the situation and permits the suicidal person to recognise that there are no boundaries to what they can say. It also gives the opportunity to talk about other options. 

“And be patient. Don't interrupt. Give them time to reflect and to articulate what they're going through. Don't be frightened of silence. And never tell someone to ‘cheer up’. It’s not helpful at all. If they could cheer up, they would.” 

Steps to follow if someone attempts suicide at work 

Depending on what stage they’re at of trying to kill themselves – the first thing would be to call an ambulance and follow up with the hospital to find out where the ambulance is going to take that person. Then make sure they receive professional mental health support from either the NHS or mental health charities such as The Listening Place. 

“It's really important to offer support to that person’s colleagues as well,” Sarah suggests, “Otherwise, it might become something that gets rumoured about within the workplace.” It can be traumatic to witness a colleague go through something like that.  

The impact on the listener 

Sarah implores managers that have these sorts of conversations to think about their own needs “because empathising with someone who is distressed can be upsetting. If the upset stays with you, you need to seek help. 

“Don't underestimate what you go through listening and acknowledging what someone else is going through when they're suicidal. So, continue, but consider your own mental health and think of what your needs are and ask for them to be met.”  

Leadership and company culture  

Sarah says it’s crucial to spread the value throughout the business that “Mental health is as significant as physical health and should be equally supported within employees.  

“That's an important message to come from the top of the organisation. There's only any point in removing the stigma, if there is access to support afterwards. It's everybody's business and leaders should help in any way they can in terms of communicating with their employees.  

“When employees say that they need time off because they've got cancer, for example, people are very sympathetic. If people take time off because they need to see a psychiatrist or a therapist, they're not always so sympathetic.  

One of the most important things to do to open the conversations about suicide and remove the stigma from a company is to not have anyone shying away from it. It’s better to become more aware before it’s necessary, than to be in that type of situation and not know what to do. Encouraging healthy discussions around mental health is the first step.  

There are lots of training companies that provide businesses with mental health first aid training for employees. 

About The Listening Place

Sarah Anderson founded The Listening Place in December 2015 and is currently its Chief Executive.  

Operating out of three sites in London, it provides sustained face-to-face free support to suicidal people by appointment. The charity responds to all referrals within 24 hours and offers appointments within seven days. The Listening Place currently offers about 150 appointments a day and there’s no waiting list. It also runs talks at various companies across London. 

This month, The Listening Place will take part in the Big Give’s 2024 Kind2Mind campaign. From midday Tuesday 14 May 2024, until midday Friday 28 May 2024, all donations made to the charity – and over 150 more mental health charities – could be doubled. 

Donate to The Listening Place through the Big Give here.  

If you’ve been affected by suicide in any way and you’re London-based, you can contact The Listening Place. Or seek support from your GP or Samaritans from anywhere in the UK. 

If you’re looking for a talented professional to join your team, or a new working environment, contact your nearest Reed office today.