Employee suicide: the role the workplace can play to flag up early warning signs

The act of suicide is often the culmination of mental health issues which become unmanageable. Why are men more likely to take their own lives? Can workplace mental health and wellbeing initiatives help? 

Protecting a mind

Suicide and mental health
It’s widely accepted that early interventions can help stop mental health issues spiralling out of control. Of course, mental illness has different degrees of severity, from low mood, to schizophrenia, to psychosis. In many cases, psychiatric help is essential to help patients move forward.

For many people, there comes a point of no return. The latest figures1 reveal 5,821 deaths were registered as suicide in the UK in 2017. To put this figure in context, there were 1,793 UK road fatalities2. That’s three times as many suicides as road deaths.

Given the huge financial resources invested in road safety, you’d assume that similar prevention strategies would be in place for suicide, but it’s almost impossible to predict who will take their own lives. Although many people who kill themselves show symptoms of anxiety and depression, they remain undiagnosed by professionals. Often, there is no warning and the act itself can be very impulsive. In many cases, the suicide is a complete mystery to the deceased’s family, close friends and work colleagues.

Mid-life men and suicide
A key finding in UK suicide research1 is the fact that three times as many men take their own lives compared with women. The figures show that the highest suicide rate for UK men was between the ages of 45 and 49, at mid-life. 

Mid-life should ideally be a stable and secure time, when men are at or nearing the peak of their earning powers. It can also be a time when life choices become limited by circumstances, and the weight of accumulated baggage can become difficult to bear. Research by the Samaritans3 sums it up: ‘men in mid-life can feel devastated when the choices they have made earlier in life appear to be mistakes.’  

Male culture and mental health
Masculine culture demands that men are rocks, when the reality is that many are caught between a rock and a hard place. And it’s here that issues can arise. In social situations, men will openly discuss the Rugby World Cup, Netflix and Brexit, but it’s rare that conversations include an emotional temperature check. This isn’t stereotyping; it’s simply an observation. In this culture, men are less likely to seek medical help for mental health problems4. 

As for state provision for mental health, hardly a week goes by without media coverage of underfunded services. So, when friends, family and the NHS can’t help, the workplace has an important role to play. It’s encouraging that employers are beginning to understand the vital role they can play in supporting their employees with their mental health and wellbeing. 

What great workplace support looks like
The workplace can be where help is at hand; and I speak from experience. Specially-trained staff such as ‘Health Heroes’ can drive mindfulness and wellbeing initiatives. Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs) can be trained to possess the skills to identify issues and offer support. 

To give more depth, here’s a rough sketch of what ‘good’ looks like. The workplace needs to be a comfortable place to ‘talk mental health’ and ideally wellbeing and mental health initiatives can be run through an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme), which can help support employees in all areas of their lives, including pressures at work, relationship breakdowns and money worries. The service can include counselling options, telephone support and give employees access to clinically-validated smartphone apps. Mobile tools like these can help employees manage conditions such as anxiety, stress and depression on the move. Given such easy access, it’s a first line of defence. Add to that a confidential, professional telephone counselling service to help employees proactively manage stress at work, as well as face-to-face intervention through the EAP when the going gets tough. As part of the package, exercise-related staff benefits also fit in well with wellbeing initiatives, such as discounted gym memberships and cycle-to-work schemes.

Although there isn’t the space here to outline every requirement, a workplace mental health strategy should also include specific mental health courses and workshops for MHFAs. Let your workforce know who your MHFAs are, specifically their names and locations. It’s worth noting that MHFAs are part of a community of 350,000 UK-wide individuals with specific skills. The Line Managers’ Resource5 provides extensive practical guidance. Your business needs people who can help identify staff mental health issues from behavioural traits and patterns, such as unusual sickness absence or presenteeism. 

To sum up, there is some good news: there has been a significant decrease in male suicide in the UK, and the male suicide rate is the lowest in over 30 years1. And many employers, including Aviva, run diversity and inclusion programmes which create safe spaces for employees to share their thoughts and experiences on disability, gender parity, cultural differences and LGBT issues at work.

But let’s not be complacent. Statistics change over time, and demographically the UK is moving to a phase where many more middle-aged ‘Sandwich Generation’ workers are facing the demands of caring for elderly parents at the same time as supporting school-age children and/or full-time students6.  The pressure’s on, and the workplace looks set to play a bigger role in providing an early warning system for mental health issues in the future.

The author is Lee Roberts, senior underwriting manager at Aviva Group Protection. 

This article is provided by Aviva. 


  1. Samaritans 2018 Annual Report; December 2018
  2. UK road fatalities September 2018/ Annual Report 2017; Department of Transport; 27 September 2018
  3. ‘Men and suicide: why it’s a social issue’ report; Samaritans; September 2012  
  4. Priory survey 2015 of 1,000 men; 2015  
  5. The Line Managers' resource, MHFA England; 2016
  6. Aviva ‘New Thinking: Behavioural science and the sandwich generation’ 2018   

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