A conversation that could save a life

The loss of a work colleague to suicide can take an enormous emotional toll on staff
as well as having a heavy economic cost to an organisation. Knowing how to talk to
someone you are worried about can be daunting and fears about saying the wrong
thing can get in the way –  but there are ten tools to help you start a conversation
about suicide that could help save a life.

Ann Feloy founded Olly’s Future (registered charity no. 1187184) in loving memory of her
son Olly Hare who took his own life at age 22 shortly after graduating with a First from UCL.
She is on the board of the Zero Suicide Alliance. Rose Allett is a counsellor and mental
health project manager and created Start the Conversation providing specialist suicide
prevention education. Both women are experienced suicide prevention trainers and together
they created Talking about Suicide: Ten Tools (TAS10), a 90-minute online trainer-led

You notice a colleague has started behaving differently. Maybe he or she doesn’t contribute
as much as they used to during your weekly team meetings. They look tired and seem
withdrawn. You brush it off – after all everyone has been feeling the strain this past year. 
Then you hear talk that they are acting a bit strange and are missing deadlines or meetings.
You notice their eyes are bloodshot and they appear unkempt. Could they be drinking a

You wonder how things are for them at home, but don’t feel you know them well enough to
ask. You are colleagues, not friends. Surely they would tell their line manager if they were
struggling? Surely their manager will notice and have a word? Surely they have a friend to
talk to, or their partner will step in?

By now your niggling concerns about them have become serious worries. What if they are
really struggling to cope? What if… something terrible happened?

Now is the time to step in – but will you? And what would you say anyway? Meanwhile your
colleague is not getting the help they may desperately need.

The Samaritans estimate that one in 20 people are thinking of suicide at any one time, so in
any crowded bus or train or  in any large meeting, there may be someone putting on a brave
face but suffering in silence.

Three quarters of all suicides are by men with men in the age bracket of being men aged 45
to 55 having the highest numbers. Younger men are the second highest age bracket and

figures statistics now show suicides by young women are now on the increase. (NCISH

An article in the last issue of Sentinel – ‘A Matter of Life and Death’  stated that before the
coronavirus hit the UK, work-related mental ill health and suicide levels were at 20-year
highs. Suicide is thought to be ‘the biggest cause of work-related incident deaths.
In May 2020, Small Business magazine reported that one in ten small business owners were
contemplating suicide, with many citing cashflow problems, trying to meet COVID-19
workplace guidelines and late payments as their biggest struggles.

The debate is ongoing over how to measure and monitor precisely to what extent work
contributes to an employee taking their own life.  Most suicides occur due to very complex
and interwoven factors in that person’s life. However, two things are clear.
Firstly, the impact of death by suicide is enormous. It is estimated that a person is
65% at greater risk of ending their own life, if they lose a loved one to suicide. (SASP

The Department of Health estimates that for every life lost to suicide, the total cost to the
economy is around £1.67 million, including medical costs for individuals and families, lost
income for families, and lost productivity for employers. (Department of Health, SPR0110) 
Secondly, if a person is finding life hard, maybe even impossible, they may be thinking about
suicide. A conversation could save their life. Whatever the reason a person is finding life
unliveable – surely our responsibility, as a colleague or employer, but more so as a fellow
human being, is to do what we can. And we can all learn to have that conversation.
As risk assessors and health and safety experts, it’s vital to feel skilled and empowered to
talk about suicide, openly and confidently, with any person we are worried about. Skills like
active listening, asking directly about suicide, and gaining trust and consent to include others
in the conversation can be taught with no prior training. 

We also deserve to become unafraid of ‘making things worse’ (we won’t, we can’t), ‘putting
the idea of suicide into their head’, or ‘saying the wrong thing’. 

These are fears that can stop us from starting a life-saving conversation. Imagine needing to
have this conversation in your workplace, by the water cooler or in a private meeting room  –
or even on Zoom – and our fears might heighten. These are understandable fears, but they
are unnecessary and dangerous. 

With the latter, arguably, if we are showing we care, there is no ‘wrong thing’ to say at all.
But as with everything, there are known to be healthier language choices we can learn to
make that might make someone (sub-consciously) more comfortable and encourage
honesty – asking ‘are you thinking of suicide?’ over ‘are you thinking of committing suicide?’
for example.

Perhaps our greatest fear is losing someone we know to suicide; someone we love, of
course, but also someone we work with. 

Going back to the office might feel daunting for a myriad of reasons – and this is going to be
a strange time for everyone. If you manage a team, consider how much safer you, your

colleagues, and your workplace could be if you were confident and comfortable using the ‘S’
word. You could save a life.

  • Around 1 in 20 people are thinking of suicide at any time. (Samaritans)
  • 72% of people who died by suicide had no contact with a health professional
  • in the year before their death. (Mental Health Foundation)
  • The emotional impact on those left behind – people bereaved by suicide are
  • 65% more likely to attempt suicide themselves than if their loved one died by
  • natural causes. (SASP 2019)

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