Work related suicide in Australia

You commit to work for financial reward and the satisfaction of a job well done. Yet it’s estimated 1 in 5 Australians who suicide do so because of their working environment according to Suicide Prevention Australia.

How can we possibly be making people so miserable at work that suicide seems like the only option? And what can we do to lower such scary statistics?

Work related suicide: a snap shot

Nationally, suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged 25 to 44 and women aged 25 to 34. A specific study conducted on the Victorian landscape found 17% of suicides were work related between 2000 and 2007. These figures are used by most major bodies, including Suicide Prevention Australia, to estimate 3800 work related suicides nationally in the decade from 2001 to 2011.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists conducted a study into occupational suicide in 2006 in Queensland and found significantly higher suicide rates in construction, agriculture and transport workers in men. Young male builders still suicide at such a high rate that they are 10 times more likely to take their own life than die on the job. Women similarly suicided at higher rates in agriculture – and spikes were found in nursing, artistry and cleaning.

Now you can probably understand why Bob Katter has such a bee in his bonnet about preventing suicide amongst farmers in Queensland. It was and still is a big problem.

A study conducted in Britain found that between 2001 and 2005, male beauticians and related workers were 30% more likely to suicide than the next high risk group of coal miners, merchant seafarers and construction workers. Female athletes presented rates of other double of their next high risk occupations of veterinarian and artist.  This study found economic issues such as low pay rates and work instability associated with lower socio-economic standing were major contributing factors.

You could potentially add non-traditional gender role pressure (male beauticians and female athletes and artists) into the mix, however no specific study has looked into how perceived gender roles influence suicide rates outside the GLTBQI community. We do however know that men are far more likely to suicide worldwide.

In New Zealand, the Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Otago published a study completed in 2011 that tracked 30 years of occupational suicide in New Zealand and found significant at risk groups existed in nursing (male and female), female pharmacists, and hunter cullers.

However as the report points out, occupational suicide seemed to be tied closer to access (considering the high rates of poisoning and death by medication) than potentially tied to stress in an occupation.

So where does that leave us?

Workforce bullying is a problem in Australia

Work related suicide doesn’t start in isolation. There are contributing causes.

A Safe Work Australia report found that 6% of Australian workers reported bullying compared to world-wide figures of 1- 4%.   The same Safe Work Australia report found depression cost Australian employers about $8bn a year in illness and lost productivity, with an estimated $693m of this figure being attributed to job strain and bullying.

One of Australia’s leading provider of Employment Assistance Programs (EAP) to the public and private sector, Davidson Trahaire Corporate Psychology found that in a major study of 5200 people seeking their assistance, 17% were suffering from the effects and/or directly relating stories of workplace bullying.

 

We spend the majority of our lives at work, and the hours are only getting longer. It’s also documented within communities where bullying is a major feature such as the teenage GLBTQI community or in family violence situations where tactics such as emotional and psychological violence are employed, suicide rates drastically increase.

And yet, while we know bullying is a serious problem in Australian workplaces and our suicide rates are atrocious, the difficulties remain. But stamping out bullying relies on self reporting. And self reporting must also contain leadership and management that foster an environment of disclosure.

So what could be a situation where self harm and death is avoided, it goes un-reported. Probably for a myriad of reasons but most certainly if the management is the bully, the person fears losing face with the company, the bullying is hard to quantify on a reporting level, or if there is a lack of infrastructure in place to encourage the reporting in the first place.

Stress as a contributing factor

Bullying is not the only cause of work related suicide. Stress and pressure play a role as well.

The Australian Productivity Commission places the figure of lost productivity between $6billion and $36billion when in-direct costs such as poor work performance, absenteeism during the day and the impact of ongoing stress is taken into account.

A lack of job insecurity, financial issues and long hours all play a role. So too do public perception, such as within the police force or armed services. Personal financial pressure, the inability to relax outside of work and drug and alcohol usage also contribute to creating higher risk.

Yet work related suicide is difficult for many to talk about. Usually because issues such as stress, mental health concerns and burn out still remain shrouded in stigma.

What can we do to end work related suicide?

The truth of the matter is suicide is such a complex issue that no one single thing is going to reduce the numbers. Nor can it be a workplace fix. However, working together to ensure that these statistics of suicide and bullying are reduced should be an aim for all people- whether we’re the worker or the employer.

We also need to not only develop and implement strategies that lessen the impact of work related stress, bullying and the loss of associated productivity, we also need to evolve into a culture of change. Taking steps to realise that the place where we spend the majority of our waking hours and making them conducive to happiness and a sense of belonging is paramount.

Lives depend on it. 

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Photo By: Andrew E Weber

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