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More Americans are killing themselves at work

Companies grapple with what is appropriate to share and how to support co-workers

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America’s climbing suicide rate has become a problem for businesses, too.

Buried in a report last month by the Bureau of Labor of Statistics on occupational fatalities was this tragic fact: More people are killing themselves in the workplace than ever before. The number of such suicides for 2018 was 304 — an 11 percent increase from the year before and the highest number since the bureau began tracking the data 26 years ago.

Companies are struggling with how to respond.

“Ten years ago, most companies saw suicide as a personal or medical issue, and would say it has nothing to do with work,” said Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and board president of United Suicide Survivors International, a prevention advocacy group. “I was banging my head against the wall trying to convince companies to talk to me. Compared to now, when I’m getting calls from major global conglomerates seeking me out, looking for answers and strategy. There’s almost too much to do.”

In the wake of such trauma, executives often grapple with what to do: How to counsel and support co-workers and those who witnessed the death? What to say publicly and how much to disclose internally?

Last year, after a Facebook employee jumped from the fourth floor of a company building in Menlo Park, Calif., his death sparked accusations of harsh work environments for some of the company’s foreign employees. The controversy intensified after a co-worker of the deceased joined in the criticism and was fired by Facebook shortly after. Facebook representatives later confirmed the co-worker was dismissed but said it was not because he spoke out about the suicide and work conditions.

“We’re talking about really difficult, complicated situations,” said Larry Barton, who was not involved in the incident but serves as a threat and risk consultant for several Fortune 500 companies. “I’m getting two to three calls per week now from companies dealing with someone struggling with suicidal thoughts. The upside of it is you’re seeing employees and companies getting to the point where they are willing to discuss the problem of suicide at work.”

That has yielded opportunities, Barton and other experts say, to raise awareness about mental health in the workplace and help companies take steps to prevent suicides. Last year, several of the country’s leading suicide prevention groups released their first “National Guidelines for Workplace Suicide Prevention,” with recommended practices such as annual events that highlight resources available to employees for mental health and suicide prevention, risk mitigation and reducing toxic work environments. In recent years, national groups have also published a detailed guide for managers coping with the aftermath of suicide and a “blueprint for workplace suicide prevention.”

The number of other fatalities in workplaces has steadily declined even as workplace suicides have increased, the BLS reported. As in past years, the agency cautioned the newly released number of 304 probably undercounts the total because they mostly include those that happen at the work site or off-site while someone was engaged in work, but determining such a relationship is often difficult. The count also does not include ambiguous deaths, such as from drug overdoses.

The workplace numbers reflect the larger crisis in society. Since 1999, America’s suicide rate has steadily increased, climbing 33 percent in the past two decades. More than 47,000 people now kill themselves every year, and more than a million attempt to do so.

When looking at suicides overall — whether in the workplace or not — construction companies face by far the highest suicide number and rates among men, with a rate 2.5 times that of the overall national average for suicides among adult males. The second- and third-highest male occupation groups are the arts, design, entertainment, sports and media; and installation, maintenance and repair, according to a 2018 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For women, the top three highest-risk occupations are arts, design, entertainment, sports and media; protective service; and health-care support.

Researchers attribute the high rates in construction in part to chronic exposure to physical danger and injury; common use of painkillers, drugs and alcohol; the transient nature of employment; and the fact that most workers are middle-age men with less education — among the highest at-risk demographics.

The rising numbers have led to some surprising and powerful responses. In 2016, the construction industry convened a task force to figure out how to tackle the problem. In 2018, after the CDC began highlighting especially high suicide rates by industry, that task force was made into a nonprofit organization, Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which is delivering suicide prevention strategies to companies and workers.

“Often it requires a high-level leader to step forward and say this matters,” said Spencer-Thomas, who helped in the construction nonprofit group’s creation and now serves as an advisory member. “It can’t be shoved off to the wellness people or HR folks. For things to change, it takes a top executive saying this is important to our company, our mission and to me.”

As companies increasingly struggle with the problem, prevention advocates are trying to seize the opportunity to talk about how corporations can foster better mental health.

“It’s really opened the door to conversation about how companies can support employees,” said Colleen L. Carr, director of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “The hope is someday, mental health will be a routine part of wellness programs at companies, as routine as getting your flu shot or blood pressure taken.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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