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       Hazards, number 141, 2018
Work and suicide: A TUC guide to prevention for trade union activists
There can be few more challenging issues confronting a union rep than the suicide of a work colleague. But suicide affects people at work, which makes it a union issue. Hazards editor Rory O'Neill says this is why the TUC has produced a guide to help reps deal better with suicide risks, prevention and the aftermath of a tragedy at work.

 

Every year between 5,500 and 6,000 people in Britain end their own lives - well over three times the number of people who die on our roads.

“Fortunately, this is something that most union representatives will never encounter but the issue of suicide is an important one and can often be linked to issues such as workplace stress, bullying or harassment,” says TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson.

Suicide and work is a growing public health concern, something that has prompted the TUC to produce a new guide for union representatives. “This stresses that there are a number of things that employers can do to try to ensure that no employee feels that they need to end their own lives,” says the TUC safety specialist.

The guide advises union reps to ensure employers are aware suicide and suicide prevention is a workplace issue and that they have accessed appropriate advice and support. It recommends there should be a joint union-management review of existing policies on stress management, bullying and harassment, mental health and employee assistance.

CHECK IT OUT  Union checklist on suicide prevention at work and the work-related risk factors safety reps should address. more

There’s also the bread-and-butter union role of supporting members. “Unions do not expect their stewards and health and safety representatives to be trained counsellors but we often find that workers confide in their union representative when they have problems and just talking can be a great help,” says Robertson.

He adds “by knowing what warning signs to look out for, sometimes you can make sure that they know where to get help. Finally, let’s not forget that the work that unions do to help prevent stress, long hours, low pay, bullying, harassment and job insecurity already goes a long way towards helping prevent workers from feeling depressed and that is a major part of our Great Jobs Agenda.”

Twin track approach

“There are two main areas where union representatives can help make it less likely that someone in their workplace will end their lives. These are prevention and support,” reiterates Robertson.  

“Unions can try to ensure that the workplace is not contributing to a person’s mental health problems by tackling issues such as stress, bullying and harassment. They can also ensure that their employer has processes to help identify individuals at risk, support those people and raise awareness of the complex issues surrounding suicide. That means negotiating policies that cover these areas and reviewing existing policies.”

In 2017, the government released figures that showed there was a strong link between suicide and occupation, which puts the issue firmly on union safety reps’ turf (Hazards 137). Low-skilled male labourers, including construction workers, 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 and agricultural workers.

“Many of these workers are also those more likely to experience workplace stress. But job insecurity, zero hour contracts and workplace downsizing are also important risk factors,” Robertson says.

Employers have general legal duties to provide a safe working environment, which should include addressing these known risk factors for suicide. But there are problems, he says. “Despite the link between workplace stress and suicidal feelings, there are no known cases in the UK where an employer has been prosecuted after a worker has taken their own life because of the pressure they were under at work.

“This is despite the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act and the Health and Safety at Work Act both potentially applying if it can be shown that the suicide was a result of the employer’s actions.

“There has also only once been a successful claim for damages in the civil court after a suicide. Employers do not even have to report workplace suicides as the HSE reporting rules specifically exclude suicides from the requirements on employers to report deaths that arise from work.”

Role of the employer

An employer can take steps to help suicide prevention regardless of whether work is a major cause of an employee’s mental health problems. A good suicide prevention policy does not have to be a separate document, says TUC. Often it is best to address the issues within the wider occupational health and well-being policies.

“This is because a workplace that takes measures to prevent stress, gives workers an element of control and has an open and honest approach to mental health, is more likely to ensure that workers are comfortable raising problem issues and know that they will get support,” the TUC guide notes.

Measures employers can take can include:

Promoting good mental health and destigmatising mental health problems
Reducing stress at work
Preventing and taking action against bullying and harassment
Extending support and psychological health services
Educating and training managers and other key staff
Introducing supportive sickness absence and return to work policies.


Role of the union

A union representative may encounter a member who says they have felt suicidal or had suicidal thoughts in the past. “You do not need any special training to be able to listen,” TUC advises. “Simply let the person talk, don’t make assumptions and be prepared to ask clear direct questions if it helps the person to open up.”

It is also important to guide individuals to support. “This could be from their GP, the employer’s Employee Assistance Programme/occupational health provider (if there is one), or a body such as the Samaritans,” the guide says. “If the member has work-related problems then you can also try to ensure that the issues that are concerning the member are addressed by the employer.”

Robertson points out that many union activists will at some point have to deal with a member dying. “Any death of a member can be upsetting for their work colleagues,” he acknowledges. “If however the person is believed to have died by suicide then it can have a major emotional impact and employers should be willing to offer counselling and help to all those affected as well as support for the person’s family.”

Information

Work and suicide: A TUC guide to prevention for trade union activists, January 2018.
Hazards work and suicide webpages.
TUC guidebook on mental health in the workplace (registration required).
Sarah Waters. Suicidal work: Work-related suicides go uncounted and unaccounted for in the UK, Hazards magazine, number 137, 2017.
Suicide by Occupation 2011-2015, Office for National Statistics, March 2017.
Introducing supportive sickness absence and return to work policies.
Dying from inequality, Samaritans, March 2017.
Reducing the risk of suicide: A toolkit for employers, Samaritans/Business in the Community, March 2017.
Crisis management in the event of a suicide: A postvention toolkit for employers, Samaritans/Business in the Community, March 2017.



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Work and suicide

There can be few more challenging issues confronting a union rep than the suicide of a work colleague. But suicide affects people at work, which makes it a union issue – and is why the TUC has produced a new guide to help reps deal better with suicide risks, prevention and the aftermath of a tragedy at work.


Contents
Introduction
Twin track approach
Role of the employer
Role of the union
Information

Checklist
Suicide checklist for union reps

Hazards webpages
Workplace stress and mental health
Work and suicide