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.”