Work-Related Suicides: When work is so bad that you kill yourself

What can we say about working conditions when work becomes so bad that people kill themselves?

Leeds University Research Sarah Waters published an article in Great Britain’s Hazards Magazine reviewing how different countries address workplace suicide and how little is known about the phenomenon:

Studies in the United States, Australia, France, Japan, China, India and Taiwan point to a steep rise in work suicides. Researchers have linked these suicides to a generalised deterioration of working conditions, including unmanageable workloads and increased job insecurity.

Despite evidence of a comparable rise in the UK, workplace suicide remains a largely hidden phenomenon that is unrecognised in legislation, absent from official statistics, overlooked by the authorities and widely misunderstood.1

According to the  US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 282 workplace suicides occurred in 2013, the highest number recorded since the CFOI series began in 1992. That number stayed about the same in 2014, dropping 18% to 229 in 2015. The BLS published a recent study of workplace suicide in the United States. They note that it is extremely challenging determining whether suicides are workplace related. That study concluded that workplace suicide is a relatively small, but growing, occupational concern, and had some interesting conclusions:

  • From 2007 to 2009, a period that included the Great Recession,13 fatal work injuries declined rapidly, yet workplace suicides increased and have remained elevated.
  • 45- to 54-year-old males had the highest likelihood of committing workplace suicide.
  • Employees working for wage or salary incurred the majority of workplace suicides, but self-employed workers had a higher propensity.
  • Workers in the public sector had a higher propensity for workplace suicide while workers in the private sector suffered the majority of these fatalities.
  • The private industry sectors with the highest propensities for workplace suicide were finance and insurance; professional, scientific and technical services; and health care and social assistance.
  • Management occupations accounted for the highest share of workplace suicides, but legal occupations had the highest propensity.
  • First-line supervisors of retail-sales workers committed the second-most workplace suicides
  • Police and sheriff’s patrol officers and security guards incurred the third- and fourth-most workplace suicides, respectively.

What is the cause of workplace suicide? Waters notes that “there is scant discussion of why work or working conditions might drive some employees to suicide. There are no recommendations on how rising workplace suicides might be tackled or addressed.” The article cites one study that suggests that “job insecurity, zero hour contracts and workplace downsizing are important risk factors in suicide.”

Waters has studied the letters written by individuals in 82 suicide cases across three companies during the period 2005-2015.

In each company, there was a peak of suicides at times of restructuring, when new management policies were being introduced either to increase workloads through raised production targets or to cut company costs by shedding jobs. In most of these letters, employees blame work or their experiences of work as the cause of their self-killing.

The letters do not point to a single factor or cause, but evoke experiences of working life that has been disrupted by chaotic restructuring, forced redeployment, increased production targets or management bullying.

Waters ends with a plea that we “recognise, document and analyse workplace suicide, so that we can deal with its devastating human and societal consequences.”

Bureau of Labor Statistics Fatalities

8 Comments

  1. Interesting though tragic. But not clear whether “workplace suicide” refers just to suicide at work (a phenomenon that has been identified in France) or whether all work-related suicide is included. Also, what does this mean: “Workers in the public sector had a higher propensity for workplace suicide while workers in the private sector suffered the majority of these fatalities.” Does it just mean there are more private-sector workers so they have more suicides but suicides/worker FTE are higher in the public sector?

    1. I know the feeling. Switched from one 40 hr job to another, and the old one wants me to work per diem if possible but… I just need the cash. Overworked and underpaid, the American dream.

    2. This is just how I feel as well. Working in an office is like a cancer that eats away at your soul the longer you stay.

  2. I am facing disciplinary action at work because of not getting along with a coworker (she has no common sense and feels a sense of entitlement now that she is in Govt). I have been on for 21 years and she was hired 18 months ago….an immigrant, aged 60 with physical deformities that actually prevent her from doing all her duties and she requires accommodation to do her job! She never listened to what I was trying to teach her and I grew more and more frustrated with her. She has now complained to senior management about some interactions which are petty and some are false.
    I am an anxious person and this has me very worried……I’d rather commit suicide than to go through this. I probably will!! I will be financially ruined with disciplinary action so I might as well end life!!

  3. wages do not cover food and rent. rent is sky-high, minimum wage is so low as to be some sort of joke. 8 years of promotions and positive performance reviews and perfect attendance and still only being paid minimum wage. can’t afford a roof over my head anywhere. nowhere to go for shelter and a meal (homeless shelters are full). for me, it’s either suicide or a slow death on freezing streets anyway. it’s a relief to have a faster death – life was terrible thanks to my awful job that paid starvation wages. not surprised that retail supervision has the highest suicide rate because it is indeed a death sentence.

  4. Boss/new supervisor have taken actions to ruin my job and destroy career advancement opportunities, in addition to disparaging my personal/professional ethics to co-workers and “mushrooming” me. I am the longest tenured, by far, person on staff, and have had my responsibilities apportioned to new hires; no explanations given. When I have asked the reasons things are happening, I am told that they aren’t happening, then the situation is made worse. I believe they know that since I am black, they don’t have to worry about any repercussions.

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