Opinion

Work-related suicide: a complex picture

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Recent high-profile cases of suicide with an apparent link to work pressure provide a timely reminder of the need for employers to both reduce the risk of work-related stress and support the mental wellbeing of their teams.


The tragic death in January 2023 of Ruth Perry, a primary school headteacher who took her own life following a downgraded Ofsted report from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’, has led to a recent call for all work-related suicides to be investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

This follows previous calls for the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) to be amended to include suicide as being reportable to HSE. There is also the broader context here of a worsening rate of suicide in key sectors of the economy, notably construction.

Phil Newton: "Employers should be able to demonstrate to a health and safety inspector, on demand, that they have considered the potential causes of work-related stress in their organisation, assessed the levels of risk and put appropriate mitigations in place."

RIDDOR and ‘work-related suicide’

This raises interesting legal issues, not least what a ‘work-related suicide’ is exactly in the eyes of the law. RIDDOR only requires a death to be reported to HSE where someone dies as a result of a ‘work-related accident’. The same legislation defines ‘work-related’ as meaning “an accident arising out of or in connection with work” and an ‘accident’ as “including an act of non-consensual physical violence done to a person at work”.

As a result, HSE is clear in its position that incidents of suicide (and/or self-harm) do not meet the reporting requirement under RIDDOR. Academics have pointed to the contrasting approach in other countries where the state monitors and investigates work-related suicides. For example, in France, suicide is considered a workplace risk with employers required to prove to an investigator that a suicide of one of their employees was not work-related.

The fact that the UK government legislated in 2013 to reduce the number of reportable incidents and cases of occupational disease under RIDDOR from its previous iteration is perhaps indicative of the fact that HSE has been narrowing the focus of its investigation and enforcement action for a number of years.

With the move towards deregulation and the future of many European Union (EU)-derived health and safety laws still under threat, along with constraints on HSE’s budget, it appears unlikely there will be legislative changes of this kind, at least in the current Parliament.

Coroners’ investigations

Furthermore, there is already a system in place for the investigation of a death by suspected suicide, whether that is work-related or not. Coroners are under a statutory duty to investigate a death in their area if they have reason to suspect the death is violent, unnatural or the cause of the death is unknown.

If that statutory duty is engaged, coroners are then required to undertake a fact-finding investigation to determine where, when and how the deceased came by his or her death.

Suicide is the most disastrous and saddest consequence of poor mental health. Photograph: iStock

It is common practice for HSE to provide a factual report to the coroner to assist with that fact-finding investigation where a fatal incident has been reported to HSE under RIDDOR.

Even though such a factual report will not be available to the coroner in the case of a suicide that appears to be work-related (for the reasons noted above), that does not prevent the coroner from investigating any work-related issues that may have caused or contributed to the death. The inquest into the death of Ruth Perry, to be held later this year, is a case in point. The coroner will be looking closely at the work-related issues of Ofsted’s role and the impact of its inspection on her mental health.

Coroners’ investigations and inquests are likely therefore to remain the evidential forum where any work-related issues are aired. Employers should ensure they understand the inquest process, be prepared to be designated as an ‘interested person’ and have the organisation’s policies, procedures and risk assessments scrutinised during that process.

Coroners also have a statutory duty to consider issuing a ‘Prevention of Future Death’ (PFD) report if, in their opinion, there are circumstances continuing to exist that will create a risk of further deaths. This is likely to be a feature at the inquest into the death of Ruth Perry where the family have already stated they are looking to the coroner to make recommendations to Ofsted.

Comment

Despite the legal challenges, these calls for greater HSE involvement in work-related suicides are certainly aligned with the broader strategic focus of the UK government and HSE on the role of employers in tackling stress in the workplace.

The UK government has pledged funding for the provision of occupational health services which will support employees with mental health issues to stay in work. HSE has also made tackling poor mental health one of its strategic objectives for the 10-year period 2022–32.

We are yet to see the ‘meat on the bones’ of that strategic objective, and in particular what that will mean for employers in terms of enforcement given that the HSE has strict criteria when it comes to investigating work-related stress. What these criteria emphasise though is the importance of prevention of work-related stress in the existing workforce.

Employers should therefore be able to demonstrate to a health and safety inspector, on demand, that they have considered the potential causes of work-related stress in their organisation, assessed the levels of risk and put appropriate mitigations in place.

Suicide is the most disastrous and saddest consequence of poor mental health and in some cases, like Ruth Perry’s, the work-related aspects of that will be obvious. This is a complex issue though and there are often multiple reasons, related to matters inside and outside of work, why someone decides to take their own life. Making changes in this area of law may therefore prove challenging but the statutory duties on employers are long-standing.

These calls at least serve to put the question of compliance firmly in the regulatory spotlight.

HSE guidance for employers on managing stress at work and suicide prevention: hse.gov.uk/stress/suicide.htm

Contact Phil Newton at:
pinsentmasons.com

Phil Newton is Associate at Pinsent Masons LLP

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