Work-related suicides in Europe

The Irish Times has reported on a speech made by Dr Jukka Takala, Director of EU-OSHA, in Spain in November 2009.

“[Dr Takala] said since the publication of a recent study showing a very high level of work-related suicides by French Telecom workers, there was an urgency about getting this information. “Personally, I favour a system such as they have in Japan where the families are compensated for the suicide of a relative, and the debate has already started in this organisation and in the commission and some of the member states,…”

It is not uncommon in OHS to hear calls for further research and more research on work-related suicide is definitely needed.  (Australia has some very good work in this area.)

Caution has to be voiced on the risk that suicides be seen as the mental health version of workplace fatalities.  Research and OHS statistics often focuses on fatalities for various reasons including that the statistics are easy to quantify.  If a worker dies from being crushed by a machine, its a workplace fatality.  There is a trap in terms of suicides where the cause and effect is not so clear, or mechanical.

Only recently have workplace fatalities begun to be investigated with consideration of the social or non-work contributing factors.  If the machine operator was pulled into the machine because they were inattentive, why were they inattentive?  In terms of suicides, the agency of injury will be fairly obvious but the contributory factors could be far more complex.  And if the suicide victim has not left a note explaining the reasons for their action, it is even harder to determine “cause”.

Looking at suicides runs the risk of  not paying enough attention to the mental health issues that have not reached the suicide level.  The focus should not be researching suicides but researching the combination of issues leading to suicide.  It is a much greater challenge but is likely to have more long term benefits.

Takala’s comments about family compensation and the need to acknowledge the reality of work-related suicides gained the attention of The Irish Times because they meet the imperatives for a newsworthy angle.  Takal’s speeches at the Healthy Workplaces European Summit 2009 covered much greater territory than the Irish Times article and should be read to better understand the comment’s context.

There are hundreds of work risks that require assessment and psychosocial hazards is one of those areas.  A full list of speakers at the conference is available by looking at the program.  Abstracts of most presentations are available for download.

Kevin Jones

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