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Urgent action needed on workplace suicide

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Education and policy reform in the workplace is crucial in tackling Australia’s suicide rate, a new position statement from a key advocacy group says.

Suicide Prevention Australia (SAP) has issued a paper arguing that urgent action is required to address a range of systemic issues in the workplace, including managing unemployment, workers’ compensation, and coronial processes.

“In addition, we call on organisations of all sizes to implement workplace policies and programs that promote a mentally healthy workforce and prevent suicide behaviours,” SAP says.

The position paper says that most deaths by suicide are among people of working age, with suicide the leading cause of death for men aged 25-44 and women aged 25-34. However, the proportion of suicides that are work-related is unclear.

One Australian study found that 17 per cent of suicides in Victoria from 2000-2007 were work-related. Applying this estimate to deaths across Australia, about 3,800 suicides over the decade to 2011 may be work-related.

“Adults spend about a third of their waking hours at work. The workplace provides a unique opportunity to provide key health information and intervention,” the paper says.

“Suicide Prevention Australia sees the workplace as playing a vital role in the creation of a suicide safe community.”

The paper says that the World Health Organisation has suggested that worker suicide is a result of a complex interaction between individual vulnerabilities and work-related environmental factors that trigger stress reactions and contribute to poor mental wellbeing.

Apart from the human cost The SPA Report contains an estimate that suicide costs the Australian economy $17.5 billion per year.

“Employers have a legal responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace, including managing psychosocial stressors,” the SAP paper says.

The paper calls on employers to: promote a workplace culture that is inclusive, destigmatises mental health problems and encourages help-seeking; prioritise psychosocial workplace safety, including identifying ways to reduce work-related stressors; understand and value the person as a human being rather than a resource; promote mental health and suicide awareness within the workplace; establish mechanisms for the recognition and early detection of mental health and emotional difficulties in the workplace; provide employees with access to appropriate self-help or professional interventions and treatment; frame suicide prevention programs in a culturally sensitive manner; be prepared for suicide to touch the lives of employees and respond appropriately.

Mental health charity, SANE Australia, welcomed the Work and Suicide Prevention position statement, saying the workplace was a critically important focus for suicide prevention activities and the promotion of good mental health.

SANE Australia CEO Jack Heath said Australia has the capacity to halve the suicide rate within 10 years if the nation had the will and resources to do it.

“The tragic loss of life among working age adults is an issue that urgently needs to be tackled in the workplace itself, where we spend so much of our lives, and which can be the source of so much stress, especially to those who are vulnerable because of poor mental health or other factors,” he said.

“The workplace is also a great place to connect with men who might be struggling.”

The paper also highlighted areas in which industry groups and government could assist, including adequate government funding for counselling services and intervention and support programs.

It proposes the review of the role of the workers’ compensation system in suicide prevention, minimising harm and maximising opportunities for intervention with those vulnerable to suicide, and urges government to adequately resource coroners to ensure coronial investigations include the role of work in suicide deaths.

The paper is available at www.suicidepreventionaust.org.

Debra Vermeer