According to research from The Black Dog Institute, mental illness costs the Australian economy over $12 billion per year in lost productivity, and is now the leading cause of sickness, absence and long term work incapacity in the developed world.

For employers, it’s never been so important to look at mental health in an organisational context, and to prevent tragedies preemptively by educating yourself and your staff, creating a mentally healthy workplace, and knowing how (and when) to intervene.

Mental health is everyone’s responsibility, but employers need to step up and show that they can offer an environment where people can thrive, be inspired, find happiness and fulfillment, receive respect and be treated with the decency that they deserve.

Suicide in Australia

Devastatingly, suicide remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44, and according to the most recent Australian data from 2015, we have:

  • An overall suicide rate of 12.6 per 100,000, which is our highest rate in 10-plus years
  • Lost 3027 people to suicide in 2015 alone, a number that equates to more than eight deaths by suicide in Australia every day
  • A suicide rate that is three times greater for men, than females
  • A growing number of female suicides; and
  • A suicide rate for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples that is more than double the national rate, and that accounts for 5.2% of all Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander deaths, compared to 1.8% for non-ATSI people

Are they OK? Warning signs to look out for

Employers have a special responsibility in the battle against mental illness and suicide. When we think about the working week and just how much time we spend in the office, it becomes abundantly clear that we really need to look out for each other in this area of our lives.

Suicide can feel very sudden, and out of character, but there are almost always signs.

Those at risk may be difficult to identify, but you should be on the lookout for out-of-character behaviour. A person at risk may feel trapped, like they are a burden, don’t belong, are hopeless, guilty and ultimately just want to escape.

According to Heads Up, they may feel alone, damaged and helpless, and say things like:

"I can't see any way out of this mess."

“What is the point? Things are never going to get any better."

"They'd be better off without me."

"I don't fit in anywhere."

"I just can't take this anymore."

“It's my fault, I'm to blame."

"I'm on my own... no one cares about me anymore; no one would even notice I was gone."

"I'll never be the same again."

"Nothing I do makes any difference, it's beyond my control and no one can help me."

You may also observe behavioural signs, which according to Heads Up could include:

  • previous suicide attempts
  • talking about suicide
  • talking about feeling trapped or having unbearable pain
  • agitation, anxiety and/or irritability
  • trouble sleeping
  • changes in mood or appearance
  • withdrawing from, or taking time off work
  • recent stressors
  • social withdrawal and feeling alienated
  • seeming preoccupied with internal thoughts or problem
  • putting their affairs in order
  • quitting activities which were previously important
  • showing feelings of sadness, anger, disconnection, hopelessness, loneliness or helplessness.

Starting a conversation

Sometimes the best place to start, if you notice one of your employees could be struggling, is to start a conversation.

You could start the conversation by saying something along the lines of “You haven’t seemed yourself lately and I’m concerned”, or “I’ve noticed XYZ and I wanted to quickly check in and see how you are”.

Sometimes showing you care, in a non-judgemental way, is enough to make the individual reconsider their options.

This is the time to connect them with any health professionals, or allied services, you offer as an organisation.

However, if you start a conversation and are concerned that the individual is in immediate danger, or may hurt themselves, don’t leave them alone. Call 000 and tell them that a life is at risk.

Supporting an employee after a suicide attempt

According to Lifeline’s recent suicide statistics, for every death by suicide in Australia, there as many as 30 people who attempt to end their lives. That equates to around 63,500 suicide attempts each year.

With suicide atttempts so prevalent in our workplaces and communities, the onus is on us to learn how to support individuals that have faced these struggles, and who are returning to work.

Remaining non-judgemental, giving them space, whilst letting them know that you care and are there for them, are just some of the ways that you can make them feel more comfortable coming back to the workplace.

You should also be aware of your other staff’s behaviour towards the individual, and make sure that they are not receiving undue stress, pressure or interrogation.

Supporting your staff after an employee’s suicide

As devastating as it is, suicide is a real problem, and thousands of Australian families, friends and organisations, deal with the fall-out every single day.

If you have lost an employee to suicide, the trauma and devastation is quite unimaginable, and that’s why it is important for you and your employees to support each other.

There may be people within your organisation, that have unanswered questions, guilt, or even anger and confusion.

It can be beneficial to connect with a counsellor to help you cope and deal with the event, and it may be useful to connect your employees with one also, through your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

If you don’t have an EAP, you can encourage your staff to see a GP for further help, or information.

What else can you do as an employer, to prevent suicide?

In addition to knowing the risks, what to look for, and how to intervene when your employees are distressed, there is always more you can do.

By examining your workplace practices, and evaluating how mentally healthy your organisation is, you can make further changes to strengthen morale, and prevent suicides.

For more information, check out our employer resource on ‘Building a Mentally Healthy Workplace’.

Need extra support?

If you’re faced with a problem in your business, or organisation, or would like to chat about how best to prevent future issues, we’d love to chat. You can reach us on 136 123 Mon-Fri 8:30am - 5:30PM AEST.

At Employment Plus, we are fortunate to be partnered with The Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), to offer eligible employees industrial relations advice, at no cost, when you place two or more of our job seekers. For more information, please call us on 136 123.

Depending on your situation, you may need additional and/or different help.

Here are some more useful contacts:

  • Lifeline - 13 11 14 - for crisis support and suicide prevention.
  • Beyond Blue’s Support Service – 1300 22 4636 – for information and advice on depression, anxiety and related conditions, available treatments and where to get help. The information line is not a counselling or crisis line.
  • SANE Australia’s website and helpline – 1800 18 SANE (7623) – provides information about symptoms, treatments, medications, where to go for support and help for carers.
  • R U OK? - a suicide prevention charity in Australia, reminding people that having meaningful conversations with mates and loved ones could save lives.
  • Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467 - free, nationwide telephone and online counselling for anyone affected by suicide.
  • Conversations Matter - Practical online resource to support safe and effective community discussions about suicide.
  • Mental Health First Aid - offer courses to teach mental health first aid strategies to members of the public.
  • Heads Up - gives individuals and businesses tools to create mentally healthy workplaces.