Trigger warning: This news story contains information some readers may find distressing as it refers to data about mental health, suicide and self-harm.
People who are off work due to injury or illness are at higher risk of later suicide and intentional self-harm, according to new research from Monash University.
The researchers, which collated findings from 47 studies published over 20 years from 16 different countries, found the risk of suicide was elevated in people with workers’ compensation claims, on long-term sick leave and receiving disability pensions.
This suggested a need for governments and employers to focus on identifying workers at greatest risk of suicide and put more effort into suicide prevention, according to professor Alex Collie in the school of public health and preventive medicine at Monash University.
“We found consistent evidence of a link between being off work sick or injured and later suicide. We see this link in many countries and in people with different types of health conditions,” Collie said.
Of the 47 studies included in the review, 44 found that people with a work injury or illness were at greater risk of suicide or self-harm. Only one study showed a protective relationship and two showed no relationship.
“Looking across all of this evidence, we also found a number of things that increase the risk of suicide, such as being off work for a long time, younger age, living alone, having a history of poor health or a mental health condition,” Collie said.
People who had very long periods off work were at much higher risk. Being out of work with injury or illness for weeks, months or years was linked with a significantly increased risk of suicide and self-harm, according to the study which was published in PLOS Global Public Health.
“But time away from work doesn’t necessarily reflect the severity of injury or illness,” Collie said.
“It may also indicate that the person has received poor quality medical treatment, has delayed seeking help, or has other behaviours that can affect recovery such as substance misuse.”
The review’s authors suggest that programs and services designed to reduce the duration of time off work may also reduce the risk of suicide and self-harm.
“When it comes to reducing time off work, we know what good interventions look like. This review adds another dimension and suggests by supporting sick and injured workers to return to work, we may also be able to reduce the risk of suicide,” Collie said.
“Suicide prevention should not be left just to the healthcare system. We have opportunities through systems that support sick and injured workers, like workers’ compensation and social security, to identify people who are at higher risk and to provide supports and services that reduce those risks.”