Suicide challenges the OHS profession

Safety and risk professionals often need to consider the “worst case scenario”.  But we hesitate to look at the worst case scenario of workplace mental health – suicide.  On 26 August 2011, Lifeline presented a seminar to Victorian public servants that was brilliant, confronting and worrying.

Lifeline campaigns on suicide prevention and it seems to do this through discussion and counselling.  It outlines not the “warning signs” but the “help signs” that one needs to look for in our work colleagues.  According to Lifeline, possible life changes can include:

  • “Recent loss (a loved one, a job, an income/livelihood, a relationship, a pet)
  • Major disappointment (failed exams, missed job promotions)
  • Change in circumstances (separation/divorce, retirement, redundancy, children leaving home)
  • Mental disorder or physical illness/injury
  • Suicide of a family member, friend or a public figure
  • Financial and/or legal problems.”

Many of these issues can be helped by talking about them but, in OHS-speak, that is an administrative control in the hierarchy of controls.  The OHS professionals’ job is to determine if the risks can be mitigated or eliminated and this is where many OHS professionals fail.

It may be unfair to call it a failure, as the professional may simply not have the skills necessary to look beyond the hazard and determine a control measure.  In this context, the OHS profession and its members must be engaged in social reform.  If any of the workplace hazards are generated by, or exacerbated by, n0n-work related factors, the OHS professional must consider methods to reduce those non-work hazards.

It is useful to remember the 2002 study by John Bottomley called “Work Factors in Suicide“.  According to the publication

“This study reported work factors contributed to 109 cases of suicide in Victoria between 1989 and 2000, with the main factors identified being:

  • Work stress (21%).
  • Unspecified work problems (19%).
  • An argument or disagreement with a work colleague or boss (13%).
  • Fear of retrenchment (12%)”

(A more current report by Bottomley “SUICIDE AND WORK…” is available online)

Suicide is an example of the psychosocial challenge for OHS professionals.  Applying a risk matrix to suicides would probably rate it as highly unlikely and less than catastrophic because suicides are statistically rare at workplaces and only one person at a time dies.  But it may be possible to create a suicide pyramid, similar to Heinrich’s and Bird’s, where there is a rough proportion of suicides to mental health problems to moodiness to dissatisfaction, or similar categories.  This may be easier for OHS professionals and managers to grasp due to the familiarity of the concept.

OHS professionals, predominantly, are comfortable with engineering concepts and direct cause and effect.  Fluffiness is challenging and humans are full of inexactitude, confusion, illogic and emotions. So what can OHS professionals do to reduce the risk of suicide?  They should listen with empathy and not be judgemental.  If something seems out of character with a colleague, ask them about it and see where the conversation goes.

When I was a young man, a colleague came to work clearly distressed.  He had hit a pedestrian with his car while driving to work.  In the 1980s, support services at work were very thin and we were largely unaware of what was available.  There  were no inductions, even in the public service, at that time.  Instead of talking with the tealady, I excused myself from work and took my colleague for a long walk around the nearby gardens.  He talked and I listened.  During the walk he found, largely by himself, a clearer idea of what options were available for him through work and the support services available.  He was not suicidal but he was “not his usual self”.  He needed to talk.

OHS professionals also need to be social activists or, at least, socially aware.  Psychosocial issues can rarely be turned off at the office door or the factory fence so to reduce the impact of social pressures at work, one needs to acknowledge those pressures, even if one does not understand them.  OHS professionals should look to how they can actively reduce those non-work issues so that the impact of them in the workplace is lessened.  This could involve marching in the streets on some matters but change can more easily be achieved by providing an example in one’s own conduct.  Some corporate spruikers would lump this under “Leadership” with a capital “L” but “leadership” with a small “l” can be just as effective as it equates to leading by example.

This morning whilst having breakfast at a new local cafe I asked the owner whether he was marketing in his local newspaper.  He said that his marketing strategy was purely word of mouth through local residents.  He believed this was the best way to promote his business for long-term sustainability.  Cultural change is similar.  A lifetime’s commitment to small-l leadership may be more effective in the long term compared to flashy large-scale statements.  Anyone entering the OHS profession should realise that improving workplace safety will be a lifetime commitment.

OHS professionals also need to include psychosocial hazards in any investigations of workplace incidents.  Fatigue may be a significant element in workplace incidents, as has been recently stated, but this is one of many contributory factors and as many of these factors should be considered in investigations as possible.  Investigations of suicides usually focus on the psychological state of the victim and, thankfully, OHS professionals are unlikely to investigate suicide as a workplace incident.  However a suicide may indicate an “unsafe” workplace in the broadest sense of the word and it is the unsafe workplace that will need investigating.  The organisational investigation will require lots of listening and listening to people who are upset, distressed and angry.  The suicide of Brodie Panlock may be an example of the type of workplace and personal relationships that may need to be assessed.

Suicide is a workplace health and safety issue just as much as it is a social issue because it involves people.  The “people factor” has been missing from OHS for a long time, and this applies to OHS regulators as much as to the profession.  Ergonomists may argue that their discipline is all about people and it is certainly the most humanistic of the OHS disciplines but even ergonomics evolved from a mechanistic view of human-machine interactions and, in some ways, the time-and-motion study.

In some ways OHS regulators, in particular, are wary of providing guidance on psychosocial issues, partly, because to truly address the hazards, the way we work must undergo substantial change.  If excessive workloads lead to high levels of work stress, the obvious control measure is to redesign the work or employ more workers, but this could impact profits.  No company that fails to make a profit will succeed in business for long and failure will not help the workers.  So the social change required for everyone to work safely is likely to have important social, economic and political ramifications.  These must be worked through.

Brodie Panlock’s suicide is an example of how things at work and in one’s personal life can go wrong, particularly in a small business.  (A corporate equivalent may come for the story of France Telecom) It is also an example of how one event can affect the lives, perceptions and tolerances of thousands of people.  In the last couple 0f years in Australia it is difficult to identify a workplace incident that has generated more attitudinal change to psychosocial issues.  OHS practitioners, professionals and regulators must begin to look at the worst-case scenarios of suicide generated from failed mental health services and the harmful activities of people in workplaces.  To look at mental health without the worst-case scenario or without the workplace context is a half-hearted approach that ignores a substantial part of most people’s lives.

If business and OHS is looking for safety leadership, it must be actively involved in social leadership.  Social leadership is cheap to implement as it costs nothing to change one’s own behaviour.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

7 thoughts on “Suicide challenges the OHS profession”

  1. Kevin, I thank you for this article on your blog, work and suicide issues as a whole are under reported in most cases. Sadly I have a small but significant number of families where work has played a role in the death by suicide of a family member. We understand that it is not one single thing that causes the death, but a number of things meshing together that sees an individual who sees that their lives are devoid of all hope. It seems to me that it is the hopelessness that causes the end result.

    Our culture needs to change where we look out for our fellow man. If the one young woman had not spoken out about the issues surrounding of Brodie Panlock there would have been no prosecutions or law changes. The law was originally changed to some degree by the death of Stewart McGregor who took his life following being bullied in his workplace as an apprentice, no-one would speak out about the bully concerned. (In harms way – the Age Newspaper)

    I am frequently asked when speaking about bullying, \”what would you say to the victim?\” I would not have much to say as they are often so enmeshed in their distress they cannot hear anything, it is the observers that need to speak up and support the \”victim\”!

    When work crisis and personal crisis mesh then it is difficult for the one in the centre of this space to see that help can be found…it is when the two worlds collide that those who feel suicidal are unable to see that they are in trouble emotionally.

    We need to see more training about the \”human\” aspect in Human Resources in companies that may change the face of work and suicide.

    It is my belief that like CPR, Suicide awareness and intervention training be a part of OH&S training procedures. I personally have taken part in Lifelines ASSIST training in suicide intervention and it is as much as part of my everyday worklife as other counselling skills. Working in the area of grief, it is vital that I am aware of the possibility of suicide and grief interactions.


  2. Thanks Kevin, I appreciate your follow-up. I guess I was \”feeling assaulted\” because I don\’t see suicide as primarily an OHS issue and I have so many other issues drawing on my limited resource.
    But even as per your last para in your reply – I don\’t agree it\’s a \’workplce hazard\’ so much as a \’person centred\’ condition, as with various phobias and phycisal disabilities that may increase the risk factors for affected persons undertaking specific work tasks that bring those conditions to the forefront.
    Yes, as with fatigue, we need to manage the factors that may contribute to a person\’s psychosocial health at work. But I don\’t see that as any different to managing the physical environment in relation to access, egress and workstations for perons who may have physical disabilities. The condition exists in the person. We can only manage it once we become aware of it. We can become aware of it if we have the relevant \’checklist\’ to identify it.
    As psychosocial health is a \’moveable feast\’, and often varies from person to person, the \’checklist\’ for recognsiing the problem is hard to establish and even harder to get the rank and file to use.
    Again, I\’m not saying we can\’t do anything – it\’s just so hard for lay people, focussed on \’doing their job\’, to \’see the wood for the trees\’.

  3. I really appreciate most of the sentiment in the article, though as a WHS practitioner I wonder how much real influence I can have in the lives and mental health of the ‘rank and file’. I also feel somewhat ‘assaulted’ when such an article places such responsibilities on me as a WHS practitioner.

    There is a reference in the article to ‘when I was a young man’ and a distressed ‘work colleague’.

    In a similar way I am constantly alert to the emotional and physical status of those I have immediate contact with on a regular basis (about 20 people) and I am quick to check up with ‘How are you going?/Are you OK?’ when I notice any significant adverse change.

    But I am the only WHS professional in a geographically spread organisation (some 23+ sites around greater Sydney) of around 650 employees most of whom are either persons with disabilities or able bodied persons providing services to persons with disability. (An industry that in itself generates significant stress for those able bodied persons dealing with challenging behaviours of their clients sometimes on a regular or even constant basis). It is humanly impossible for me to have this level of contact with all of them such that I would recognise any day-to-day change in their personas.

    Add to this, the scale of work I have in WHSMS development and implementation, the WHS training and the day-to-day risk assessments and problem solving I get into and there is little resource left to address such a complex issue as suicide.

    Morally and ethically I agree that this issue is one that WHS personnel must be aware of and alert to. But, even when the worst case consequence factor is FATAL, given that the likelihood factor would be UNLIKELY for such a high proportion of the workforce, to make focus on this issue a high priority would probably do a disservice to so many other higher likelihood issues with marginally lower consequence issues (like challenging behaviours resulting in verbal and physical assaults).

    As an organisation, our HR department has established an employee assistance program (EAP) and this service is openly and widely publicized. Somehow we need to find a way to encourage ALL employees to talk openly about the issue and be ‘looking out for’ one another and, when appropriate, recommend the counselling services to one another.

    But I also find it difficult to accept that suicide is primarily a work related issue. Yes I agree that there are factors in any workplace that may contribute to a person’s state of mind and hence can contribute to a deteriorating mental health condition. But surely the tendency to suicide is a personal condition, and based heavily in a person’s social, religious and educational life experience.

    As a society, we have allowed, and even encouraged a higher and higher degree of physical social isolation. When so many people in our communities spend significant time in faceless socialisation though chat sites, and social media like Facebook, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to even know what an individual’s ‘normal’ persona is so that we can recognise adverse changes in the people we socialise with.

    Suicide is generally the last resort of a person who has decided that they can no longer cope with their current circumstances and they have no hope for a brighter future. Religious systems, for all their differences generally at least teach their memberships to look to a future beyond the pain and suffering of this world.

    And, as a society, we have actively campaigned to undermine the values of religious systems that teach and provide both principles and practices aimed at reducing the likelihood of their members in resorting to suicide.

    As an individual I have been face to face with the ‘black dog’ and found that my faith in God, along with my involvement in a ‘God worshipping’ community, provided a security and support against suicide being an option.

    1. I hope I didn\’t say that suicide is primarily a work-related issue because it is not. I have tried to stress that safety needs to acknowledge that workers have a life outside of work and that personal stresses will be brought to work. It is important that work does not exacerbate these stresses and, if possible, reduces the stresses.

      On the issue of Employee Assistance Programs, I am supportive of the EAPs being active in workplace health matters rather than waiting in the office for the phone to ring from a distressed worker. EAPs generally have good skills in managing mental health issues but too often we use them after an event rather than integrating these skills in preventative strategies.

      I am a strong advocate of using the resources that business already access in preventative measures. These include EAPs but also the expertise available through workers\’ compensation insurers and industry associations. if we pay premiums and membership fees, we should get as much value from these as possible.

      I am sorry if readers feel assaulted by the responsibilities. The responsibility exists but it is not only on WHS practitioners. The more we discuss, the more we consult, the more workplace resources we draw upon, the more the workplace as a whole will see the necessity of managing mental health and psychosocial issues.

      I agree that it is important for more common OHS issues to be addressed but suicide has often been a workplace hazard-that-should-not-be-mentioned. It should be mentioned, where appropriate and in the right context, as the discussion may help address those more common mental health issues

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