On 4 November 2011, Victoria’s 7.30 program broadcast a heart-rending story about the suicide of a woman who, her mother believes, took this action after suffering chronic pain due a work-related incident and being given insufficient support from her employer and workers’ compensation bodies. The story of Rebecca Wallis (spelling uncertain) apparently generated sufficient communication to the Australian Broadcast Corporation for 7.30 to undertake a follow-up and more broad look at the relationship between workers compensation and suicide.
One of the people interviewed in the 11 November 2011 program was John Bottomley of the Creative Ministries Network. Bottomley has published several research reports on work-related deaths and suicides. The figures he mentions in the report, that around 30% of the work-related suicides identified in his research had a “work injury or work-related mental illness” as a contributory factor, are included in the online publication from 2002, “Work Factors in Suicide“. What is not mentioned is another statistic in his report:
“Nine people (8%) were on workers’ compensation when they committed suicide.” (page iii)
The Victoria-specific statistics mentioned in the 7.30 report were taken from Bottomley and Neith’s 2010 report “Suicide and Work: The Need for Improved Data Collection On Work Factors in Suicide as a Contribution to Suicide Prevention” (not available online). This report had a smaller sample but still found that
“Of 58 people who had a compensable claim for attempted suicide or suicide from 1985-86 to 2006-007 (21 years), 21 claims were for suicide, and of these, ten had no previous WorkCover claim, and eleven had at least one WorkCover claim prior to the death claim for workers’ compensation.” (page 4)
The relationship between suicide and work is clearly established, it is only the magnitude that requires additional clarification.
Bottomley and Neith identified causal factors:
“The data identified a number of risk factors for suicide for injured workers on workers compensation. These included the length of time on compensation, the vulnerability of younger workers, the emergence of psychological symptoms of mental illness for those initially presenting with physical injury, and the possibly that workers from blue-collar occupations may be more at risk of suicide than other occupations.” (page 4)
For anyone still doubting the need to address the psychosocial hazards of workplace, the report found that
“Mental injury, stress or psychological injury was almost always identified as the primary cause of suicide, whether the person had one claim or more than one claim. However, most of the eleven suicides with more than one claim first came on to the workers compensation system with a physical affliction. Their later mental injury or stress affliction may have been caused by their physical injury, the subsequent loss of economic security, social connection and meaning for their live, or their experience on workers compensation, or various combinations of all of these factors.” (page 4)
There is a clear need to address the psychological needs of people in the workforce and to assess and manage workers compensation claims carefully and sympathetically. Yossi Berger described this in the TV program as obtaining a “corporate heart”.
The TV program quotes from the 2010-11 Annual Report of the Coronial Council of Victoria on suicides but the full quote is:
“Suicide is a leading cause of death in Australia, resulting in more fatalities than the road toll. The rate of suicide is thought to be underestimated due to issues with the reporting process, of which coronial findings form a part. There is a clear need for quality suicide statistics to be available to underpin public health initiatives including suicide prevention activities.” [emphasis added]
SafetyAtWorkBlog will continue to follow and report on issues related to work-related suicide as I believe that decades of silence on suicide and the social stigmatisation of suicide has impeded the development of tools to reduce the likelihood of this workplace issues.
The OHS profession needs to apply a coordinated strategy to the causal factors of work-related suicides. As discussed in an earlier article, The silo categories of workplace mental health must be dismantled or the disparate control measures will impede each other. Workplace bullying, stress, fatigue, depression, public mental health …….. must be analysed under the umbrella category of mental health so that the development of adequate and effective control measures does not become distracted by sectional interests of various narrowly targeted lobby groups and fundraisers.
Work-related suicide is a reality and we cannot begin to reduce the likelihood without first acknowledging this reality and begin to coordinate efforts.