Eighteen months ago I decided to throw my hat in the ring to work with Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA). Like any good candidate for a job I began to research the area so that I could sound somewhat knowledgeable should I be successful in getting to interview.
In doing so I was surprised to find that the majority of suicides occurred in working age adults and that four out of five suicides were in men.
It is this revelation that has prompted Suicide Prevention Australia to put on the public agenda the need to address suicide prevention in working age adults, particularly men aged 35-50 years. It is the catalyst for the release of the Position Statement: Work and Suicide Prevention.
The World Health Organization says ‘the workplace directly influences the physical, mental, economic and social wellbeing of workers and in turn the health of their families, communities and society. It offers an ideal setting and infrastructure to support health promotion and it is an important access point to reach large numbers of people.
But, it also makes good business sense to address suicide prevention.
Extensive analysis of the total cost to the community of suicide has not been done. But a reasonable estimate calculated during the 2010 Senate enquiry into suicide was in the vicinity of $17.2 billion.
SuperFriend found that among its partners, the Australian Group Life Insurers, the payout for suicide as the known cause of death was $100 million in 2012. Among some of these funds, suicide claims were around 20% of the total death claims.
Medibank Private showed stress related loss of productivity costs the Australian economy $14.8 billion annually with 3.2 days lost per worker per year due to stress.
Safe Work Australia says that mental stress claims are the most expensive form of worker’s compensation due to often being associated with long periods of absence from work.
These financial costs alone should be sufficient to warrant business taking action. But, people are our business and they must always be central to our efforts.
Suicide cuts lives short and leaves an indelible mark on those left behind.
Suicide is a complex social issue
The causes of suicide are many and varied and we do not have standard guidelines for prevention and early intervention
It is not like a heart disease or cancer where we have solid research that has given us the best way to diagnose and treat these conditions.
In fact many of the risk factors lie outside health rather they are socially driven.
There are some occupations where workers have elevated risk of suicide:
- Low skilled occupations such as cleaners and labourers
- Machine operators and ship’s deck crew
- Service workers such as police
- Skilled trades such as builders and electricians
Working conditions can impact on suicide risk – lack of time; low levels of control over work schedules; poor staff relations, lack of space and relentless productivity drives – always cheaper…. faster ….more!
Unemployment – in Europe one study found that for every 1% increase in unemployment there was a 0.8% increase in suicides. A similar study in the US indicated almost a 1:1 relationship between unemployment and suicide.
Australian research has shown during more prosperous times longer periods of unplanned unemployment led to increases in suicides.
Long term unemployed have increased risk compared to the short term unemployed – the former often finding themselves with reduced financial and security status.
Workplace bullying can have serious impact on an individual’s health and wellbeing. We are increasingly hearing cases of suicide linked to workplace bullying.
Safe Work Australia has published guidelines to assist employers address this issue.
What works in suicide prevention?
A major barrier for everyone working in suicide prevention is the paucity of research on what works.
However, for workplaces there is good evidence to support training employees as ‘gatekeepers’ so they can identify and direct vulnerable colleagues to appropriate pathways for support. There is also good evidence to support increasing both availability and access to care.
The Montreal police combined these in a multi-faceted program that over 12 years reduced rates of suicide within the force by almost 80% from 30/100,000 to 6/100,00.
In Australia, Mates in Construction has adopted this multi-faceted approach within the construction industry. To date 44,000 people have been trained and levels of awareness and help-seeking have been increased.
Suicide Prevention Australia is leading the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention in new approach for Australia. This approach is Collective Impact.
Collective Impact is a framework through which governments, business and community organisations come together adopting a common agenda and agreed goals, measures and reporting structures to solve complex social problems.
Our agenda is to halve suicides in Australia over the next 10 years.
SPA challenges all employers to engage their staff and put the recommendations into action. We invite all interested parties to join the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention and be an active player in the team that is working to save more than 1000 lives every year.
Written by Sue Murray, CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia.