In the first three months of last year, 10 people at Orange, a French telecoms company, killed themselves. It was not the first time such tragedy had struck the mobile giant. The company—formerly known as France Telecom—also reported a rash of self-inflicted deaths between 2008 and 2009. A similar cluster of suicides once gripped Foxconn, where 18 people working at the factory in Shenzhen, China, attempted suicide in 2010, and where another 150 threatened an en masse death jump in 2012 in protest of low wages and poor working conditions.
Though there haven’t been such notable concentrations of workplace suicides at one company like that in the United States, in 2013, the last year for which data are available, 270 people in the U.S. committed suicide at work—a 12 percent increase over the prior year.
“The reasons for any suicide are complex, no matter where they take place. Usually many factors are at play,” says Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Among them are economic and work-related stressors.
One recent study found that the global recession that began in 2007 could be linked with more than 10,000 suicides across North America and Europe.
“Historically, suicide rates do rise during economic downturns. The entire population is still experiencing the downstream effects of economic recession,” Moutier says.
But while it’s possible to link workplace issues to suicide, such as the case of a worker who is laid off or fired, and subsequently kills himself, Moutier says it's “far more likely” that issues at work are just one more stressor for someone who is already vulnerable to suicide because of pre-existing mental-health conditions, such as depression or substance abuse.
“There are many risk factors for suicide—from a person’s mental or physical health to his or her genetics—and workplace suicide is no exception,” she points out. “But by far the greatest risk is whether someone has access to the means—a gun, prescription medicines—to commit a suicidal act.”
A new study today in the American Journal of Preventative Health took a deeper look at this upward trend and found that while workplace suicides decreased between 2003 and 2007, they sharply increased from 2007 to 2010. Several factors placed some people at higher risk of workplace suicide than others, according to Hope Teisman, the lead author on the study, and an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Teisman’s team based their analyses on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of Fatal Occupational Injury (CFOI) database from 2003-2010. Most studies prior to this that examined the link between suicide and occupation using death-certificate data, but did not limit suicides to those that occurred at the workplace.
Researchers found that men were 15 times more likely than women to kill themselves at work, a finding Teisman says is in line with more men committing suicide in general. Researchers also found that men and women defined by the CORI database as other/unknown race were more likely to kill themselves at work than those whose race was identified, and that men and women between the ages of 65 and 74 were almost three times as likely to kill themselves at work as people of other ages. Neither of these findings are as easily explained.
Researchers found that, in general, people working in protective-services occupations—a swath of the workforce that includes law-enforcement officers and firefighters—were more than 3.5 times more likely to take their lives at work than those in other occupations. Eighty-four percent of the time, these suicides involved a firearm.
“When you have such easy access to a gun, suicide becomes an option,” says Sergeant Brian Fleming, a 32-year veteran of the Boston Police Department and an instructor at the Boston Police Academy.
Fleming has devoted his life to suicide prevention, including a 15-year tenure at the Boston Police Department Peer Support Unit, where he led the charge in debriefing the officers responding to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. “The tragedies that cops see in their day to day work are traumatic. Not knowing if you’re going to make it home alive—that’s traumatic. It takes a toll,” he says.
Making matters worse, Fleming says, is a “macho” culture that makes seeking help difficult. “Cops are afraid of being seen as weak among their peers or having their superior take them off the streets. Their reputation and even their career could be on the line,” he says.
Workplace suicide rates among farmers were even higher than among police officers, the researchers found. Farmers’ vulnerability to suicide has previously been associated with many factors, from living rurally, which leaves farmers socially isolated and without access to mental health services, to financial hardship. Also high were workplace suicides among those in automotive maintenance and repair occupations. This has previously been attributed to chronic and long-term exposure to chemical solvents, which are linked to depressive symptoms and emotional instability. However, notes Teisman, “there are many other occupations that are exposed to similar solvents that have known neurotoxic effects that were not associated with high workplace suicide rates.”
But still, even if occupational stresses play a role in the decision to commit suicide, why do it at work?
“People who choose workplace suicide may be doing this to protect family and loved ones from finding them after the fact,” Teisman says.
Another theory, Teisman said, comes back to the idea of lethal means. “If you are in an occupation that has regular access to lethal means [such as law enforcement], your risk for suicide may be higher. This access may not be unique to the workplace, however, as workers may be able to take certain weapons home.”
But, given that most American spent about one-third of their day on the job, the workplace provides a unique opportunity to implement suicide prevention programs. The AFSP’s Interactive Screening Program (ISP), for one, is an anonymous online survey that identifies those most at risk for suicide and connects them with support. Fleming relied on it at the Boston Police Department, as do more than 100 other workplaces, including the National Football League and the Veteran’s Administration.
“During the roll-out of the program, 60 cops did the online survey. Six of them came in for treatment and at least two of those were at risk for suicide,” Fleming says.
The ISP was initially developed to help identify college students with serious depression or other suicide risk factors. Based on its success, it was adapted for the workplace, Moutier says.
Employers using the ISP encourage all employees to take a short survey. At the completion of the survey, each person receives a response from a counselor that provides options for follow-up evaluation and treatment. Users may also chat with the counselor online while maintaining their anonymity, schedule a telephone or in-person meeting, or request a referral for treatment or other services.
“We believe the work environment can have a protective effect just as it can a harmful effect,” Moutier says.