CONTENT ALERT This article discusses workplace bullying and suicide. If you feel like you’re going to act on suicidal thoughts, call 000 if you live in Australia.
Workplace bullying has had a significant association with suicide ideation, behaviours and death by suicide across the last two decades. However, research on this association remains sparse. For example, a 2017 systematic review of studies found only 12 that fit the criteria of workplace bullying and suicide ideation and behaviour. Over the last five years, there has been a slow increase in related research, interestingly for us a number of those in Australia.
In this article we explore what the research tells us about workplace bullying and the risk of suicide ideation and behaviour. We also explore what it means for us in our current environment and what we need to do to minimise the risk.
Workplace Bullying and Suicide in Australia – The Rise of Public Awareness
It’s not unfair to say that Australian workplace bullying and suicide awareness was catapulted into public awareness in 2006 when 19 year old Victorian café waitress, Brodie Panlock, ended her life after experiencing workplace bullying. The 2008 Coroner’s investigation found that her workplace colleagues had “systematically bullied her, both physically and emotionally, this conduct causing her anxiety and unhappiness“. These events culminated in a last incident that caused her “an unbearable level of humiliation” before she ended her life.
Unforturnately, this was not the last death to be recorded that was linked to workplace bullying in a formal review. In 2018, a Coroner’s investigation into the death of Paula Schubert, personal assistant in a Northern Territory government department, noted in the lead up to her death in 2016, significant bullying at work. The Coroner documented
“The conduct of the managers in holding meetings without providing appropriate information about the agenda, without giving appropriate notice or a reasonable opportunity to have a support person present, the teasing about not being able to afford coffee and the humiliation in front of fellow workers was not reasonable management action. In my opinion it was bullying.”
Outside of the above, news articles have occasionally peppered the media of individuals who have died by suicide, where allegations of bullying have been made. Often these appear to be made with no apparent formal or public investigation linking bullying to the outcome or proceeding consequences.
Association Between Bullying and Suicide Ideation and Behaviours
Across the research on workplace bullying and suicide ideation, there has been a demonstrated association between the two. However, it does need to be noted from the start, key criticisms of the research has been the lack of high quality epidemiological studies and the lack of exploration of workplace bullying or other reasons as a cause of suicide ideation and death by suicide.
Some of the earliest research identified in the 2017 systemic review, often used participant self identified methods, produced suicide ideation results of between 9 and 66%. The percentages are impacted by the methodology of the research, which was not consistent between studies. The following are examples of these studies and their outcomes.
- 2007 Turkish study of 505 nurses indicated 87% reported exposure to bullying and 10% suicide ideation.
- 2007 Turkish study of 210 academic nursing personnel indicated, 91% exposure to bullying and 9% suicide ideation
- 2008 Italian study of 102 targets identified 52% had some risk of suicide.
- 2008 French study of 48 targets reported 25% reported suicide ideation at based line and follow up 12 months later.
- 2012 French study of 41 targets identified 66% ideation and 7% attempts
A more recent and larger scale study published in 2022 comes from Denmark. This study, of 98330 participants, cross references bullying data with those treated in the clinical system experiencing suicidal behaviour. Of 10295 participants who had been identified as being bullied, 184 (1.7%) had a recorded history of suicide ideation or death by suicide. While this is large scale, one of the key challenges of this study is it’s focus on only those who experienced workplace bullying and suicide ideation who had entered the clinical system. Hence the number may be under-estimated.
A Greater Comparative Risk
Completed research has also reported on the greater comparative risk bullying poses to targets and suicide ideation. A longitudinal Norwegian study of 1846 participants at three intervals (initial and proceeding intervals of 2 and 5 years) indicated that employees who reported bullying were twice as likely to report suicide ideation when compared to their non-bullied counter-parts.
An Australian study published in 2020 of 1488 mid-aged workers, when accounting for bullying, found employees were likely to have 1.5-2 times the odds of suicide ideation. This study explored bullying and the impacts of job demands, job control and insecurity; and is one of the few studies that takes into account other factors. It concluded that bullying and increased suicidal thoughts occurred within the broader context of psychologically unsafe workplaces and, due to the nature of the study, was unable identify the exact cause of the ideation.
Along similar lines to the above, a 2016 Australian research paper with 932 participants indicated that bullied or harassed employees were more likely to be associated with suicidal thoughts at 1.54 time the risk. This study explored other psychosocial workplace risks along side bullying and suicide ideation. This outcome was associated with workplace characteristics including those employed in medium-low and low skilled occupations; while identified predictors of bullying were low supervisor support, high job demands and high job security. Conversely, higher job security was associated with lower suicide ideation, as were more highly skilled individuals. As with the above mentioned study, it was unable draw conclusions on the direction of relationships and the direct ideation cause.
A Long Term Impact
To many, it won’t come as a surprise that research indicated that bullying has a long term injury impact on those targeted. The above mentioned Australian study of mid-aged workers commented that one of their findings was an enduring association between a target being bullied in a prior workplace and active suicide ideation. This paper indicated that the effect of bullying is persistent and not restricted to the time or place of its occurrence. This, in itself, supports the Norwegian study that suicide ideation continued to be found 2 and 5 years after the initial bullying episode. It is also supported by other non-suicide related studies, for example, a meta-analysis into longitudinal impacts of workplace bullying and mental health outcomes, that indicate the mental health impacts of bullying continue over time as invasive experiences are recreated in intrusive thoughts, rumination and prolonged stress.
Gender as a Risk Factor
Being male may also present as a risk factor of suicide ideation as a result of workplace bullying. The 2022 Danish study reported in their findings that men, not women, who had no history of suicide attempts or diagnosed mental health conditions had an increased risk of suicide.
In the Australian construction industry, young men are at high risk of ending their own life. A 2021 study of young male construction apprentices in Queensland reported that 30.8% of respondents identified being bullied when based on a subjective definition. Of those 20% were identified as being severely bullied when measuring against a more objective research method (the Negative Acts Questionnaire). Their experience of bullying was also substantially linked to the experience of suicidal behaviours in others and/or experienced suicide ideation themselves. This was particularly problematic for those apprentices in the 3rd year of their apprenticeship or not currently in one.
The Future – Minimising the Risk
As mentioned earlier, there is still further research required on the topic of workplace bullying and suicide ideation as what exists has many gaps yet to be explored including whether bullying is the direct cause of suicide ideation and behaviours.
However, there is evidence to start informing our risk management approaches at work. Without a doubt, this is through prevention of workplace bullying in the first place through more effective functioning systems and better workplace cultures that support speaking up when the first signs of problems arise. The two Australian studies indicate that generally psychosocial risks can co-exist and contribute to suicide ideation. Managing these risks is a vital overall strategy to improving workplace psychological safety.
However, creating psychologically safe workplaces and implementing wholesale psychosocial risk management takes time, sometimes decades. Hence our workplace systems and the community at large must address the risk with prevention, management and recovery strategies until these can be effectively implemented. From this we must ensure that our workplaces are focused on continually improving and learning to prevent bullying and suicide ideation and behaviours.
What other risk management strategies need to be considered?
- Given the indicators, it is essential that we start asking questions to identify the presence suicidal thoughts of employees who report they have been bullied. This needs to be proactive across boundaries of not only workplace assistance and support programs, but through ensuring places where employees go to seek support (eg. GPs, psychologists) are aware of the possibility and asking the questions that minimise harm.
- By improving our investigation of suicides. In Australia in 2021, there were 3144 deaths by suicide. Investigating whether there were potential risks at work, be it bullying, job security or job control, helps us improve the quality of the data that we have to learn from it at higher and strategic levels. Obviously, this in not where we want the solution to come from, but without the information from what has occurred, there is often a lack of financial imperative for change.How might we investigate deaths by suicide? In the case of Panlock and Schubert there was a further exploration by the Coroner’s Court and linkages created between bullying and suicide. Should this be a standard expectation of coroner’s in establishing a cause of death; to ask questions about the workplace experience of those who end their life?
- There needs to be an acknowledgement and consideration of workplace bullying and suicide ideation as a long term psychological injury, the impacts which may continue for years or recovery may never be fully achieved. This means that an employee can take significant injury or impacts from bullying from one workplace to the next. It leaves important questions as to how we minimise harm and what are the treatment options available for this long term injury. This is not an easy question to answer, but an important one.
- Breaking down the experience of male dominated workplaces. Male dominated industries generally have higher levels of aggression and are often characterised by joking and horseplay that boarder on bullying. They can include cultures that are based on dominance and hyper-masculinity. These workplace need to focus on changing the culture to ensure it is safe for men to be able to express their experience of bullying and ask for help. In a 2019 study of fly in, fly out workers looking at links between bullying, depression and suicide ideation, it was found that social support was an important protective factor against depression and bullying. It’s these strategies that need to be promoted more to ensure the safety of male employees.
– References in this article have been hyperlinked to their source.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- ReachOut at au.reachout.com
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978