In the U.S. alone there are nearly 50,000 suicide deaths per year, and more than 1.4 million suicide attempts. The highest rates of suicide are among working ages suggesting that employment can play a role in suicide. A recent paper published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Organizational Behavior by Matt Howard, Kayla Follmer, Mickey Smith, Raymond Tucker and Elise Van Zandt has some answers. They explore how jobs can contribute to suicidal thoughts and attempts. They conclude on an optimistic note of how employment can contribute to suicide prevention through the actions of organizations.
A Theoretical Framework of Suicide
Howard and his team did an extensive review of research dealing with work and suicide, summarizing what is known. They created a theoretical framework that links work and nonwork factors that can contribute to suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and ultimately suicide. The immediate antecedents of suicidal thoughts and attempts is feelings of pain and hopelessness. This can include loneliness, feeling a burden to others, and feeling trapped and defeated. Employment contributes to these feelings in a variety of ways.
Employment Can Contribute to Suicide
The research team listed several ways in which employment is linked to suicide. Many of these factors are tied to job stress in terms of stressful conditions, how people cope with those conditions, and the support received.
- Being Unemployed: Losing a job and being unable to find a suitable replacement is highly stressful. It can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and burdensomeness for those who perceive themselves to be breadwinners.
- Occupation: Rates of suicide are not the same for all occupations. They are high in occupations where people deal with death and suffering, such as first responders (e.g., firefighters, paramedics, and police), healthcare workers, and the military. These occupations have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that develops from experiencing traumatic events at work.
- Stressors at Work: Being exposed to stressful conditions and events at work can leave people vulnerable to suicide. Two that are particularly important are job insecurity and social stressors. Job insecurity is being afraid about being fired from the job. In the age of automation, downsizing and outsourcing, this is a widespread concern. Social stressors are forms of mistreatment people experience at work. Active mistreatment is bullying and harassment by colleagues at work. Passive mistreatment, which can be even more harmful, is ostracism that leads to feelings of isolation.
- Burnout: Over time experiencing stress at work can lead to burnout—a feeling of low motivation and detachment from work. This can occur when a job is highly demanding.
Employment Can Contribute to Suicide Prevention
The authors talk about the things that organizations can do to prevent suicide among employees. One that resonated with me is the idea of building organizational climates that encourage positive interaction among employees. This means building climates of inclusion and psychological safety. Such climates encourage open and respectful dialogue among employees. Everyone is accepted for who they are and are shown respect. People feel free to express opinions without being attacked for those opinions. In a psychologically safe working environment people are supported by others, which can make it easier to deal with the demands and stress from the job. Such an environment reduces social stressors by eliminating both active and passive forms of mistreatment by other employees.
An organizational climate has to do with the practices of an organization—what sorts of behavior is encouraged and what sorts are discouraged. Building a climate of psychological safety takes effort on the part of managers at all levels. How people interact with one another needs to be changed throughout the organization. This means adopting an organizational value of inclusion and psychological safety. The importance of kind treatment of others should be communicated and become a natural part of the organizational climate. Such organizations embody how employment can contribute to suicide prevention.