More Americans are killing themselves at work
America's climbing suicide rate has become a problem for businesses, too.
Buried in a report last month by the Bureau of Labor of Statistics on occupational fatalities was this tragic fact: More people are killing themselves in the workplace than ever before. The number of such suicides for 2018 was 304 - an 11% increase from the year before and the highest number since the bureau began tracking the data 26 years ago.
Companies are struggling with how to respond.
"Ten years ago, most companies saw suicide as a personal or medical issue, and would say it has nothing to do with work," said Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and board president of United Suicide Survivors International, a prevention advocacy group. "I was banging my head against the wall trying to convince companies to talk to me. Compared to now, when I'm getting calls from major global conglomerates seeking me out, looking for answers and strategy. There's almost too much to do."
In the wake of such trauma, executives often grapple with what to do: How to counsel and support coworkers and those who witnessed the death? What to say publicly and how much to disclose internally?
Last year, after a Facebook employee jumped from the fourth floor of a company building in Menlo Park, California, his death sparked accusations of harsh work environments for some of the company's foreign employees. The controversy intensified after a Chinese coworker of the deceased joined in the criticism and was fired by Facebook shortly after. Facebook representatives later confirmed the Chinese employee was dismissed but said it was not because he spoke out about the suicide and work conditions.
"We're talking about really difficult, complicated situations," said Larry Barton, who was not involved in the incident but serves as a threat and risk consultant for several Fortune 500 companies. "I'm getting two to three calls per week now from companies dealing with someone struggling with suicidal thoughts. The upside of it is you're seeing employees and companies getting to the point where they are willing to discuss the problem of suicide at work."
That has yielded opportunities, Barton and other experts say, to raise awareness about mental health in the workplace and help companies take steps to prevent suicides. Last year, several of the country's leading suicide prevention groups released their first "National Guidelines for Workplace Suicide Prevention," with recommended practices such as annual events that highlight resources available to employees for mental health and suicide prevention, risk mitigation and reducing toxic work environments. In recent years, national groups have also published a detailed guide for managers coping with the aftermath of suicide and a "Blueprint for workplace suicide prevention."
The number of other fatalities in workplaces has steadily declined even as workplace suicides have increased, the BLS reported. As in past years, the agency cautioned the newly released number of 304 likely under counts the total because they mostly include those that happen at the work site or offsite while someone was engaged in work, but determining such a relationship is often difficult. The count also does not include ambiguous deaths, such as from drug overdoses.
The workplace numbers reflect the larger crisis in society. Since 1999, America's suicide rate has steadily increased, climbing 33% in the past two decades. More than 47,000 people now kill themselves every year, and more than a million attempt to do so.