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.