Labour Research February 2020


Suicide - the forgotten workplace killer

Safety campaigners, unions and academics point out that the official response in the UK to work-related suicide is woefully inadequate. 

In France, former senior executives at France Télécom (since renamed Orange) have been held to account after a wave of work-related suicides at the company in the 2000s. 

At the end of last year, the former chief executive officer, his former deputy and the ex-HR director were given jail sentences and they, and the company, were fined. 

On 20 December 2019, the French company was found guilty of “moral harassment” (known as workplace bullying in the UK — see box) in a landmark case. 

This followed an investigation focussing on 19 of the 35 suicides among France Télécom employees in 2008 and 2009, as well as a number of suicide attempts and cases of acute depression. 

The French court handed down the maximum €75,000 fine (around £64,000), and the SUD group of French unions estimates the firm will also have to pay damages of more than €5,000,000 (just over £4,200,000). 

CEO Didier Lombard, along with his deputy Louis-Pierre Wenès and former HR director Olivier Barberot were sentenced to a year in prison, suspended for eight months. And together with three more executives, they were also fined. 

“The employer was taken to the highest criminal court in the land and held to account for work-related suicide,” University of Leeds French studies researcher Sarah Waters told Labour Research. She explained that French law is far more advanced than UK law in recognising the existence of work-related suicide (see box). 

In France, if an employee takes their own life in a workplace, it is automatically investigated as being work-related. And the burden of proof is on the employer to show otherwise. One in five employee suicides reported to the authorities is officially recognised as being work-related.

“It is shocking that in the UK the complete opposite is true,” she added. 

Legislative provisions in France

At its 2019 annual conference, the CWU communication workers’ union called for a campaign to ensure that workplace suicide is recognised in law. 

It backed a motion setting out that if any employee takes their own life in the workplace, or there are indications the suicide may be work-related, it should be investigated immediately as a potential work-related suicide, with the burden of proof imposed on the employer. 

In September 2019, the union published a briefing on the law against work-related suicide in France. This points out that in 2002, the French government introduced new legal provisions to tackle “moral harassment” at work (known as workplace bullying in the UK). 

The French Labour Code includes a duty to prevent injuries of mental health linked to moral harassment, with the burden of proof on the employer to show their actions did not constitute harassment. Maximum penalties for breaking the law are a ¤30,000 fine (around £25,500) and/or two years in prison for individuals, and a maximum fine of ¤150,000 (around £128,000) for companies. 

The landmark case against France Télécom (since renamed Orange) and a number of former executives for moral harassment resulted in fines and prison sentences being handed down in December 2019 (see page 9). 

The CWU says the suicides “were the catastrophic outcome of management strategies, put in place following the company’s privatisation and restructuring program, which was meant to relaunch the business as a leading global telecoms provider and at the same time, implement massive job cuts”. The legal investigation into the suicides found management strategies designed to destabilise the working lives of the workforce and push employees to leave “voluntarily”. 

A key policy was forced redeployment, where employees were pushed to change jobs on an almost continuous basis, or move to new branches in distant cities at short notice. 

Many suicidal individuals left letters explaining the causes of their suicide and pointing the finger at their bosses. 

The CWU says that the French law could serve as a useful guide for pursuing similar legal protections in the UK.

UK Suicide rates increasing

The latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in September 2019 show there were 6,507 recorded suicides in the UK in 2018. This rate represents a significant increase on the previous year and is the highest rate recorded since 2002.

The suicide rate in Scotland is the highest across the UK and saw an increase of 15% in 2017-2018, according to the Community trade union. 

It reports “an alarming amount in the Glasgow and Lanarkshire areas, where the majority of our Community membership live and work”, prompting the union to run its first suicide intervention training in Glasgow as part of its wider work on mental health. 

“It is tragic that suicide is so prominent an issue now that this type of learning is in such demand and I wish the need wasn’t there,” Community learning organiser Susan Cassidy told Labour Research. But, she added, “unfortunately, with the geography and predominantly male demographics of our membership, suicide is something that far too many of our members have been affected by.”

Suicide by occupation

An ONS analysis of deaths from suicide in different occupational groups looked at almost 19,000 suicides in men and women aged from 20 to 64 between 2011 and 2015. It found the risk of suicide among low-skilled male labourers, particularly those working in construction, was three times higher than the national male average. 

There was a high suicide risk among female nurses, and both male and female care workers had a risk of suicide that was almost twice the national average. 

Although women in teaching and education had a lower risk of suicide overall, there was evidence of a higher risk for primary and nursery teachers. The NEU teaching union says that between 2011 and 2015 there were 139 suicides among female teachers and nearly 75% of these (102) were primary or nursery teachers.

“The ONS analysis shows very clearly there are different rates of suicide according to economic sector, and a number of economic sectors are disproportionately affected by suicide,” said Waters. “However, the ONS researchers said there was no evidence of causation. They don’t know whether, for example, suicide rates are higher in construction because certain types of people are attracted to work in the sector, or because of the conditions of work.”

HSE does not monitor work-related suicides

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) explicitly excludes suicide from being reported to the enforcement authorities. 

This sets out that: “All deaths to workers and non-workers must be reported if they arise from a work-related accident, including an act of physical violence to a worker. Suicides are not reportable, as the death does not result from a work-related accident.”

Waters said: “The HSE presumption is that suicide is voluntary, subjective and due to pre-existing mental health conditions. As a result, instead of an investigation to look at working conditions and make sure other employees are not at risk, nothing happens and there is no investigation.”

Waters and other researchers, together with Hazards magazine, the Hazards campaign and Families against Corporate Killers (FACK) are working to change this situation.

“We are trying to build the narrative and gather the qualitative and quantitative evidence to support our case,” Hazards campaigner and FACK facilitator Hilda Palmer told Labour Research. “This is a far bigger issue than the HSE is acknowledging. There is a model in France that we want to see in the UK, where work-related suicides are recognised, investigated and action is taken to prevent further deaths.”

Waters is one of 17 researchers across seven countries specialising in suicide and suicide prevention who wrote to the HSE in October 2019. They urged it to “implement measures to record, inspect and prevent work-related suicides” to bring the UK into line with other countries that already do this. 

They provided evidence from countries including the United States, Australia and India showing that work-related suicides are rising and have been linked to working conditions, including insecure work, work intensification, digital surveillance and bullying. 

In Japan, suicide by overwork is treated as an urgent public health issue. And, say the researchers, the 2014 “karoshi” — death by overwork — law has helped to lower the rates of work-related suicide since their 2011 peak. 

In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has recorded workplace suicide rates since 1992 and the data is collected in the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). 

Hazards magazine editor Rory O’ Neill says applying the new US occupational injury fatality figures to the UK would show suicide as “far-and-away the top cause of work-related fatalities”. 

They would be 50% higher than the HSE’s current number one — falls. And they would be double the figure for being struck by a vehicle, the HSE’s current number two cause of work-related fatalities. Even so, O’Neill points out that the US CFOI definition of a reportable work-related suicide is very limited — “the true figure is much higher,” he added. 

“And of course suicide survivors and suicide ideation [wanting to take your own life or thinking about suicide] would give us massive figures. 

“Feeling like killing yourself shouldn’t be an outcome of work.”

The researchers called on the HSE to include suicide in the official reporting requirements set out in RIDDOR using criteria established in countries including the US and France, and to make explicit mention of suicide ideation and work-related suicide in its stress management standards. 

They also called for a suicide prevention plan to be put in place, setting out the work-related risk factors for suicide and expected good practice from employers. 

And they want the HSE to provide an expert legal briefing on employer culpability in a potential work-related suicide. In addition, they called for work-related suicide to be recognised by the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit Scheme in order to record and provide state compensation for cases.

“The HSE is refusing to budge on this,” said Waters. “They say there is a problem with the term, they don’t recognise that it exists, and they argue it is a complex and subjective issue.”

HSE’s failure of recognition

In response to criticism from Hazards magazine about excluding suicide from its investigation guidelines and official reporting guidelines, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) explained its policy position. 

This is that “for an occurrence to be considered ‘work related’ it must arise out of or in connection with work and that an ‘accident’ is an unforeseen and unintentional consequence of that work. As such, incidents of suicide and/or self-harm do not meet the reporting requirement under RIDDOR.”

Hazards criticised the HSE for not using its regulatory powers to secure justice and improvements in the workplace where there is evidence that a suicide is directly related to workplace stress or other workplace factors. The HSE said: “Evidence linking suicide to activity in the workplace is generally not clear/without an element of uncertainty. 

This makes building a case for intervention/investigation/enforcement extremely difficult.” 

It says that in addition, “causal factors often relate to activity covered by equality and employment law” rather than the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.

Hazards magazine editor Rory O’ Neill says the HSE’s argument against taking action is “insanely convoluted and unsustainable”.

He said: “In HSE’s own words: HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. It doesn’t get more adverse than suicide.”

The Hazards campaign is calling on trade unionists and safety campaigners to send an e-card to HSE chief executive Sarah Albon. 

This says that suicides are one of the biggest single contributors to the annual work-related fatalities toll and urges her “to remove immediately the current HSE suicide reporting and inspection exemptions”.

Causes of work-related suicide

She says the causal link between suicide and work has been clearly demonstrated by researchers outside the UK. 

The next phase in the UK campaign — she is working closely with Palmer and O’Neill — is to focus on the issue of causation, using case histories to establish common work-related factors. 

Palmer told Labour Research: “The risk of death by suicide due to work-related factors should be just as important as any other work-related factor. These deaths are preventable and employers have a duty to do something about them.

“We are building an evidence base to support the fact that they are being caused by long hours, insecurity, bullying and harassment and unmanageable workloads. There are incredible levels of stress, depression and anxiety pushing people to take their own lives.” 

FACK is gathering information from coroners’ reports, solicitors and families to build evidence. It is using cases where there was a suspected work-related element to build the case for why work-related suicides need to be investigated and action taken to prevent further deaths.

Trade unions have also highlighted work-related factors. For example, in August 2019, a major report in The Guardian revealed a wave of mental ill health among the workforce at the Hinkley Point nuclear power station construction project, including several attempted suicides, since work began in 2016. 

Unite pointed to the “hire and fire culture” — where direct employment is low, engagements are short and most workers are either bogusly self-employed and/or recruited via agencies — as key factors behind mental health problems in the construction industry. 

“This is coupled with workers frequently living away from loved ones, a long hours culture in the industry and a macho culture,” it added.

In a response to the October 2019 consultation on the Well-being and health in higher education policy statement issued by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, the UCU lecturers’ union said its concerns for the health and wellbeing of HE staff was heightened by the death by suicide of Malcolm Anderson at Cardiff University in 2018. 

It says reports indicate that he had attributed his distress to excessive workload — when he was dealing with more than 600 students and marking more than 400 exam papers — and management failure to respond to his objections. 

“This is not just an individual issue,” added Waters. “Most specialists recognise it as the tip of the iceberg. 

“If someone takes their own life, it is a clear signal of wider problems in work affecting the workforce as a whole and not just a single suicide. It is a social and structural problem.”

ONS, Suicide by occupation, England: 2011 to 2015 (

Hazards, Suicide (

Guardian, Former France Télécom bosses given jail terms over workplace bullying (

Guardian, Revealed: mental health crisis at Hinkley Point C construction site (

UCU, Response to Consultation on HEFCW’s Well-being and health in higher education policy statement (

Liz Morrish, The university has become an anxiety machine (

HSE, Reporting accidents and incidents at work (