What do you do when a member of staff says they plan to take their own life?

It is the horror workplace conversation scenario for HR professionals, managers, mental health advocates, particularly if this possibility hasn’t been fully considered. Doing the wrong thing could result in an avoidable tragic death.

In the UK there are over 600,000 trained Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA). Factor in mental advocates of any kind in the workplace and the figure is greater still; how many of those people are having conversations about suicide with their colleagues? Anecdotally I would say a reasonable estimate of 5%, about 30,000 people potentially at risk of significant harm in the workplace.

In 2017 the government released figures that showed that there was a strong link between suicide and occupation. Low-skilled male labourers are three times more likely to take their own lives than the national average. Other groups with an increased risk are nursing staff, primary teachers, agricultural workers and those in the construction industry.

Many of these workers are also those who are more likely to experience workplace stress. However, according to a report by the Samaritans, job insecurity, zero-hour contracts and workplace downsizing are also important risk factors.

This was borne out by research published by Hazards magazine which reported that there was an increase in suicides at times of restructuring and job losses.

It is vital that HR has a plan in place for this type of conversation as safeguarding people and the organisation enabling the conversation is vital particularly with time, and the gravity of the situation being such a factor.

In relation to the process HR has to implement at this point will be dependent on whether the organisation has a specific designated safeguarding lead (DSL) within it or not. But working on the premise that an adult disclosure of intended suicide with a plan calls for immediately action to take place. In general the following process should happen:

  • Speak to the colleague about their current mental health needs, gather information, and establish if they have a plan to take their own life. For obvious reasons this needs to take place as soon as possible after the initial disclosure.
  • If the colleague states that they have plans to end their life, the staff member would need to inform the colleague that they need to pass on the information to the designated safeguarding lead or a trained and competent colleague that is able to support and contact mental health services because they are concerned for their safety. This takes priority over any breach of confidentiality.
  • It is important to tell the colleague that you will listen and support them but if they do have a plan to end their life then you may need to breach that confidentiality. This should always be documented within the organisation's safeguarding policy so all staff are aware of the process.
  • The DSL or a trained staff member would then contact the appropriate service by contacting emergency services on 999 which could include support being offered from the crisis team, police, ambulance or additional services with or without the colleague's consent by explaining the current situation and urgent need.
  • Wait with the colleague and ensure they do not have access to objects that they could harm themselves with and are safe while awaiting emergency or mental health crisis services.
  • Information is passed on to the emergency services staff and then the staff member would contact the emergency contact / next of kin to notify them of the outcome.
  • The concern must be fully documented using the organisation's safeguarding concern form and stored securely and in line with company policy and fully documenting any plan of intervention or ongoing support being provided to all employees involved in this critical incident.
  • There should also be an appropriate person who reviews these incidents and takes action where needed to any problems raised.
  • These situations are frightening to experience and don’t always go to plan and run smoothly so providing aftercare to people involved in those situations is paramount, this may also need to include mediation when the time is right for the people involved.

As it is, there are about 6,000 deaths from suicide in the UK every year which is one death for every 20 attempted suicides nationally, that is 120,000 attempted suicides. According to my anecdotal figure of 30,000 conversations around suicide in the workplace not being recorded as say a broken arm might be, this at the very least represents a huge missed opportunity to address, and in some cases, prevent tragic outcomes.

Further resources:

The TUC guide to suicide prevention at work

Business in the Community's suicide prevention toolkit

Samaritans can be contacted free from any phone 24/7 on 116 123, or emailed at jo@samaritans.org

Emily Pearson is managing director and founder of Our Minds Work. Rachael Bishop is safeguarding consultant at RLB Safeguarding.