Last updated: 11.07.23

10% of UK Suicides Could Be Work Related, Research Suggests

Suicide remains one of the leading causes of death worldwide, accounting for one in every 100 deaths, according to World Health Organization (WHO).

In a company of 1000 employees, it estimates that between 200 and 300 workers will suffer from a serious mental health problem in any given year. 

While work might not be the sole cause of the issue, factors such as increased workload, managerial pressures, bullying, and job uncertainty can all have an impact on depression and anxiety for many people.

Alongside a low mood, decreased productivity, low-self esteem, and lack of energy, data from the wellbeing platform Champion Health highlights that around 9% of employees are currently experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm. 

To put this into context, in a company of 50 people, there could be four employees struggling with suicidal thoughts. 

A business of 100 could have nine workers considering taking their own life.

In companies with 1,000 employees, it is thought that as many as 90 of them could be having suicidal thoughts.

Further research from WHO estimates that in a company of 1,000 workers, one will die by suicide every ten years.

And for every employee who dies by suicide, another 10 to 20 will make an actual suicide attempt.

Considering that adults are estimated to spend a third of their lives at work, it is hard to fathom that the workplace does not have some sort of impact on individuals with feelings of self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

Yet current guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (responsible for UK workplace health and safety) suggests that suicide is a personal event that is caused by problems brought to work, as opposed to something that is caused or exacerbated by workplace conditions or factors.

Work-related suicide within the United Kingdom

However, as many as 650 suicides in the UK each year could be work-related according to a recent campaign.

This is a staggering number considering that it equates to 10% of the nation’s annual total of suicides.

But the UK does not monitor or legally recognise work as a cause or contributing factor of suicide, unlike other countries including Japan and France. In the United States, for example, data on work-related suicides has been collected by the authorities since 1992.

Recent studies have highlighted an increase in work-related suicides worldwide due to worsening mental health caused by factors including deteriorating working conditions and increasing workload intensity. What’s more, recent workplace and lifestyle changes forced during the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have led to burnout and worsening mental health of employees. 

This means that the 650 estimated work-related suicides in the UK could actually be an underestimation.

Yet unlike other work-related deaths, an employer is not obliged to report a suicide, undertake an investigation of its circumstances or make changes to workplace policy or conditions.

Sarah Waters is a professor at Leeds University who conducts much of her research on work-related suicides. Speaking to us, she expressed:

“By not recording how many suicides each year are work-related, and by instead treating them as a individual mental health problems with no connection to the workplace, the UK fails in a duty of suicide prevention."

Speaking about the UK’s lack of measuring work-related suicides, Professor Waters explains the detrimental impact this has on society.

“Denying that a social problem exists or claiming that it is too complicated does not make that social problem go away. Rather, it means that opportunities for preventing further suicides are missed. 

“If the triggers behind each suicide are not fully investigated, they are likely to continue posing serious risks to the health and lives of other employees in the same company or organisation.”

So what can we do to combat this?

Supporting mental health and suicidal thoughts within the workplace

Of course, effective suicide prevention requires a combination of interventions and support at different levels and in different areas of someone’s life. 

But the workplace is a key area where a difference can be made for individuals. 

While employers are not responsible for their workers’ mental health, they are responsible for

preventing known risks to mental health in the same way as their responsibility to protect their physical health. 

A study conducted by Professor Waters highlights how certain work conditions are deemed to create a heightened suicide risk (unmanageable workloads, excessive hours, bullying, PTSD) and that employers have the responsibility to safeguard their employees from these risks. 

Strategies for this could be establishing a better work-life balance, addressing employees’ workloads, and reevaluating employee expectations.

Along with improving workplace conditions, Professor Waters highlights that a holistic approach to supporting the mental health of employees can be beneficial, which could include counselling, exercise and training.

Her research also revealed that poor mental health training was identified in as a contributory factor in the suicide by bereaved family members and colleagues in seven of 12 suicide cases studied.

Graeme Tucker, HR Manager at Virtual College, said: “Employers should be actively looking to utilise mental health resources as a way of supporting employee mental wellbeing in the workplace. Given the fact that we are amidst a cost-of-living crisis and experienced a recent global pandemic, the implications that these situations have had on the mental health of the public is rife.

This can’t be ignored and is why it is more important than ever for employers to offer the right levels of advice and support for their employees when it comes to their mental health. At Virtual College, we have created a range of resources to do just that. They have been designed to help employers on what support can be given so that they can easily prioritise the topic and reassure their employees that it is something they take seriously. 

“Hundreds of thousands of learners have taken one of our six mental health specific courses during the last three years and we have noticed that many organisations are now choosing courses about resilience and soft skills as a way of fixing the cause rather than only dealing with the effects.”

Our online mental health training courses explore various aspects of dealing with stress, mental health issues, and the causes of mental disorders. These courses will also teach you about proper treatments and when to seek help and support. 

We know that mental health isn’t the easiest topic to discuss but it is important that we do talk  about it, which is why we offer support that is accessible for every business and that will enable them to approach the topic with the sensitivity it requires.

Alongside our courses, there is a number of free resources available to support employers and employees such as how to identify mental health disorders, ways to improve your mental health, and the effect of things such as stress and social media. 

Risks associated with certain industries

Whilst every business should dedicate time and support to protecting employee mental health, research does suggest that different job roles could have a higher prevalence of experiencing mental health problems and feelings of self-harm.

Recent data from the ONS about suicides by occupation highlights that amongst ‘road construction workers’ in England and Wales for example, there was a sharp increase in suicides between 2011 and 2019, with annual totals increasing by 1100% from one suicide to 12 respectively. 

Similarly, amongst ‘scaffolders, stagers and riggers’, there were 13 suicides in 2011 - a number that increased to as many as 30 in 2020. 

While we cannot comment on the factors that lead to these situations, there is a strong chance that the workplace and the nuances within the different industries could have had some sort of impact on these.

For construction workers, job security, working away from home, and onsite injuries are all specific workplace conditions within this industry that can have a negative impact on mental health. 

Similarly, in the police and fire industries, a ‘macho’ management culture, little understanding of work-related stress and insensitivity to the effects of exposure to trauma have been outlined as potential causes of mental health.

This ‘macho’ culture could be one of the reasons behind suicide rates being highest amongst working-age men aged between 40 and 49 years old, according to research from Samaritans.

Male-dominated industries will have different factors contributing to mental health and suicidal or maladaptive thoughts, with one being that female employees are almost twice as likely to seek mental health support than their male counterparts.

This underlines the importance of considering the nuances of different workplaces when adopting mental health support and is why Virtual College offers bespoke training development.

Graeme said: “At Virtual College, we firmly believe that one size does not fit all when it comes to supporting the wellbeing of individuals, particularly those across various industries and workplace environments. Just as each industry has its own unique challenges and demands, so too do the individuals who navigate those spaces. It is so important that we recognise the nuances and intricacies of each workplace environment and tailor mental health support to these specific needs."

These courses can be tailored depending on want and need as we recognise that situations and factors can be really diverse across different industries.

Simply put, we can create custom resources that focus on the distinct challenges and specificities of different industries and job roles in order to offer support that is tailored specifically to the individuals working within them.

If this is something you’d be interested in, get in touch with our team to find out more.