Workplace suicide at one of the “Big 4” consulting firms

Warning: this article discusses suicide

Discussions about workplace mental health are everywhere, including this blog, but workplace suicides are less discussed, even though there is a direct connection between the two themes. This is due to the continuing stigmatisation of suicide, legal caution, reputational preservation and other factors. It is difficult to write about but necessary to do so.

Recently an EY (formerly Ernst Young) employee died at work after a work function. Some media has reported on this tragic incident, but EY has been under media scrutiny for some time about its workplace culture.

This blog is not going to repeat details of this apparent suicide as the death remains under investigation by NSW police and SafeWorkNSW other than to repeat what has already been written in the Australian Financial Review (AFR):

“… a 27-year-old female staff member took her own life at EY’s Sydney office on August 27. The woman worked in the audit and assurance division, and EY has pledged transparency about its findings.”

AFR, 15 September 2022 – EY to review ‘culture, practices and safety’ after suicide (paywalled)

Whether suicide is work-related or not often relies on the presence of a suicide note or some other form of record or communication. The absence of such an item often removes work from a consideration of causes; however, many suicides are intended to communicate dissatisfaction and distress by the location of the act. There is a strong history of suicides as protests, sometimes in public areas and sometimes in specific areas, including workplaces.

Location can be significant in investigating suicides and determining the relevance of work. Many years ago, SafeWorkSA had multiple emergencies in their building from someone who repeatedly accessed the building and threatened to jump. This blog was told that this person was occasionally dressed in clothing with written instructions explaining their grievance.

The Australian media has stepped carefully around the death of the EY employee. Articles such as the AFR one mentioned above interview experts on mental health like Dr Ian Hickie. Hickie identified three stages of corporate response to work-related suicides:

“He said workplaces responded to such tragedies in three stages: a first “entirely unhelpful” stage of attributing blame; a second stage of identifying and preventing barriers to mental harm; and third was promotion mental wellbeing.”

These seem sensible interpretations but note the absence of the occupational health and safety (OHS) context where such hazards are required to be eliminated as far as is reasonably practicable. His LinkedIn post about the AFR article seems to completely miss the OHS context:

“Social connection is essential to mental health and wellbeing and it is an area that is often overlooked by organisations. If we are serious about wellbeing at work, then we need to be doing more to support healthy social connection within the workplace.   
We also need to improve the mental health management skills of our people. Using new health technology to empower them to track their mental and physical health is one way we can support our teams”

The OHS approach, increasingly being regulated throughout Australia, is not about preventing “barriers to mental harm” but more directly preventing mental harm. This outcome is not really achieved through the promotion of mental well-being.

Known Hazard

A reader reminded me that the prevention of workplace psychological harm was long on Safe Work Australia’s agenda. In May 2014, SWA published a fact sheet entitled “Preventing Psychological Injury Under Work Health and Safety Laws“. The reasons for addressing psychological hazards now sound a little quaint, but this may be due to its writing before the #MeToo movement and the apparent mental health tsunami. SWA wrote that

“Workers’ psychological and physical health can be adversely affected by exposure to a poorly designed or managed work environment, a traumatic event, workplace violence, fatigue, bullying or harassment and excessive or prolonged work pressures. Any of these factors can increase the likelihood of workers experiencing a stress response.

Stress responses describe the physical, mental and emotional reactions which arise when workers perceive that their work demands exceed their ability to cope. Job stress is not in itself a disorder, illness or psychological injury. If job stress is excessive or prolonged it may lead to psychological or physical injury.”

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The contribution to the corporate State of knowledge about psychological harm and stress has been around for some time. The hazard is only new to those who are, or choose to be, ignorant of their OHS obligations (and there still seem to be lots of them)

Broader Cultural Context

EY and most of the other “Big 4” of accounting, audit and business consulting have been under regulatory and market scrutiny for some time about workplace culture. This attention has often been related to natural and perceived conflicts of interest and poor handling of sexual harassment incidents and claims. It could be said that EY and the consulting sector are simply experiencing what every other corporation is experiencing, but this implies that dysfunctional workplace culture is business-as-usual. In OHS, there is no such thing as business-a-usual; instead, there is continuous improvement. Compliance exists, but compliance rarely equates to a safe and healthy work environment or, at least, a work environment as it should be.

The galling element of the cultural problems in this sector is that many companies and governments rely on the industry to provide it with the best available business and OHS advice that money can buy. Yet, so many of the advisory businesses are far from exemplary.

A recent Australian article has this to say about the working conditions in EY and others:

“Since the employee’s death, current and former employees have told of the culture of overwork which occurs in major financial services businesses, particularly among financial auditors. Ex-staff cited 70 to 80 hour work weeks, especially during peak periods from July to September.
These claims were consistent with those made by employees from other Big 4 accounting firms which include PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), KPMG and Deloitte.
One former auditor who’s worked at PwC and EY described the culture at the Big 4 firms as an “iron man contest”.”

Of all the factors contributing to poor mental health at work (and probably at home), excessive working hours are the most common. The business response is often to offer higher remuneration, which in OHS terms could be considered “danger money” – “How much money do you want for you to accept or tolerate the damage to your mental health that working for us will create?” This response is unlikely to satisfy the OHS duty of care. The OHS laws and regulators will expect an analysis of the level of resources provided to ensure that working hours are not excessive and that psychological harm is eliminated or minimised. Part of the OHS Management System Leadership element in ISO45001, an international standard that many of the companies listed above audit against, is to provide sufficient resources for the OHS Management Systems (OHSMS) to operate effectively, such as personnel. The OHSMS is integral to the operation of a business, the preservation of work health and safety, and the welfare of workers. Harm is frequently generated by not having enough people to work safely, and inadequate resourcing is a conscious decision by many business owners and employers.

The apparent suicide of an EY worker in Sydney has the potential to be the New South Wales’ equivalent to Brodie Panlock‘s death in Victoria. The more the death is investigated, the more is revealed about where she worked and her working environment. In Victoria, WorkSafe appeared to be late in investigating Panlock’s death. It is heartening to see SafeWorkNSW actively participating in the newest workplace suicide.

Kevin Jones

If this article has caused you any distress, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or through its website and chat lines.

2 thoughts on “Workplace suicide at one of the “Big 4” consulting firms”

  1. Kevin,
    Having been touched by suicide on, unfortunately, several occasions I want to thank you for highlighting the issue that is kept under the carpet in most, if not all, workplaces.

    1. Jason, thanks. Here is a comment I wrote on Linkedin this morning:

      “Suicide is one of the most difficult issues to write about, especially if the catalyst for the article is an active investigation. I thought a long time about how to write about this incident and what details to include. I have tried to follow the Mindframe media guidelines on this.
      In my professional career, I have not had to investigate a fatality, and I never want to, but I do review OHS systems and interview people associated with serious injuries and fatalities, sometimes soon after the incident. You need to be cool, methodical, and empathetic but super-aware of what you say and how you present.
      I never envy anyone who investigates work-related deaths and suicides. My thoughts are always with the relatives left behind but also with those seeking the causes.

      I have also been touched by suicides but usually not work-related. Suicidal ideation? Most of us have thought about this at some point in our lives, no matter how briefly.

      A lot is written about the person who takes their own lives but very little about the circumstances in which that occurred, especially if it is work-related. All the standard legal mechanisms that lock down information and discussion for the purpose of minimising liabilities and reputational damage snap into action with work-related incidents. I understand the purpose, but this also pushes the grief and emotion somewhere else, and often generates anger and outrage from the frustration of apparent inaction.

      I will be writing more on this type of incident and its relationship to mental illness generated by unsafe work and unsafe management. We should never forget that the person who took their own life may have been mentally ill but why were they ill? Did we contribute? Did work contribute? This type of examination is essential if we are to prevent these sorts of events.

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