By Martin Barrow, former journalist for The Times and media ambassador for the Centre for Mental Health

Suicide prevention has risen up the policy agenda recently, helped by the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to a strengthened cross-Government suicide prevention strategy. But, as always with mental health, such promises are met with a degree of suspicion because of past failures to match commitments with positive action.

So it is refreshing to be able to report on a ground-breaking initiative to support employers who take a proactive approach to suicide prevention. Public Health England, Business in the Community and Samaritans have come together to create digital toolkits for employers looking to implement a suicide prevention strategy in the workplace.

This a significant collaborative project, which brings together the public, private and voluntary sectors. The toolkits are informed by the lived experience of dozens of organisations, who were willing to share their learnings for the benefit of others. Many talked openly about the pain and sorrow caused by the sudden deaths of colleagues, and about their determination to do whatever they could to reduce the risk of another suicide.

Their support and input was critical for the creation of these two inter-linked toolkits. The first focuses on suicide prevention, rooted in the adoption of an open and inclusive approach to mental health in the workplace. The second addresses the specific issue of crisis management in the event of suicide. Together, they give advice on how to evaluate suicide risk, how to recognise signs of risk escalation, and how to respond to a crisis. Acknowledging that suicide risk can never be eliminated, the toolkits also guide employers through the process of responding to a workplace suicide, not just in the immediate aftermath, but in the following weeks and months when the impact is likely to still be felt.

Throughout the toolkits there is a focus on the role of line managers, who play a crucial role in the implementation of a suicide prevention strategy. They also stress the importance of leadership, encouraging senior executives to demonstrate their own commitment to good mental health at work. But what matters most is fostering an environment in which employees can talk openly about their mental health and wellbeing, just as they do about physical health, without fear of discrimination or abuse.

Can a digital toolkit make a difference? Can an online resource save a life? These are difficult questions to answer. Thousands of organisations have downloaded BITC’s earlier mental health in the workplace toolkit, so we know that there is significant demand from employers for practical support and guidance. The suicide prevention toolkits are a response to that desire for answers.

By working together PHE and BITC have connected the public health and business agendas. In essence, these are toolkits created by business for business, informed by the expertise held by Public Health England but which was previously difficult to access.

There can be no doubt that business is waking up to the importance of supporting mental health and wellbeing. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. A healthy workplace is more productive, and an open and inclusive working environment helps firms recruit and retain the best talent.

During the course of the many interviews that took place in the creation of the toolkits, I was struck by the complexity of organisations and by the need to adopt a whole-system approach to suicide prevention. The most effective strategy is led from the top, by the Chairman or Chief Executive. But it requires the commitment of people across the organisation, from occupational health and human resources to IT and security. It requires open and consistent communication, fostering a corporate culture from the boardroom to the assembly line which empowers employees to seek help and support, when they need it and without fear. 

The PHE/BITC suicide prevention and suicide postvention toolkits can be downloaded here