What Duties Does a UK Employer Have in the Age of Rising Suicides?
In 2012, the UK Government published a strategy entitled “Preventing Suicide in England: A cross-governmental outcomes strategy to save lives”, and two further updates were published in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, an inquiry was launched by England’s Health Committee to tackle an 8% increase in the suicide rate. The issue of suicide is important to employers when the suicide relates to an employee, whether the act occurs in the workplace or not. The Health Committee has looked to employers and unions to provide evidence and input on the role they play in suicide prevention and promoting mental health at work. The Health and Safety Executive also listed occupational health as a priority in its revised strategy for 2016: Helping Great Britain Work Well.
The Health Committee will work to analyse factors influencing the suicide rate increase and to put a plan in place to tackle suicide and its barriers. The Health Committee says that suicide is now the leading cause of death for men aged 15-49. But figures also show a 14% increase in female suicide between 2013 and 2014, “demonstrating the necessity of work targeted at both sexes.” The Committee Chair commented that “even the terminology we use, for example when people talk about ‘committing’ suicide – that’s a relic from an age when suicide was actually illegal . . . The term we should be using is ‘take their own lives.’”
When a suicide occurs, it will be the subject of an Inquest and the Coroner will look into the circumstances that culminated in the deceased’s decision to take his/her own life. For example, where the deceased’s family have alleged that the suicide was due to unfair treatment or bullying at work, the Coroner has called evidence from the employer to prove that proper procedures were in place and implemented in respect of the deceased. An employee’s suicide could be a ‘reasonably foreseeable’ consequence of stress and/or an underlying psychological condition, as was the case in CORR V IBC HoL 2008, where the decedent committed suicide as a result of severe depression resulting from physical injuries sustained from a workplace accident. Employers should therefore take note, as it could be found to have caused or contributed to the suicide by breaching the employer-employee duty of care.
Employers should implement policies to support their employees who are going through mental difficulties and to monitor the well-being of remote and vulnerable workers. Although assumed, it is also important to ensure employees are treated fairly and transparently at all times to avoid potential causal links to a suicide. In order to address the rise of suicide, the Health Committee referred to the extra billion pounds a year the NHS will receive to provide mental health support. It would be prudent for employers to encourage their employees to seek relief and take advantage of the resources available.