America’s mental health crisis was the topic recently on Reddit’s /retailhell discussion board—an online forum where retail workers gather to commiserate. A poster asked if they think there are people who commit suicide because retail destroyed them mentally. “No doubt” and “200%” were among the typical responses.
Data suggests they could be right. Government statistics show that individuals employed in the retail industry commit suicide at a higher rate than normal and are far more likely to commit suicide at work.
The issue of workplace suicide gained attention this past summer after the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an 11 percent increase in 2018 in the number of on-the-job suicides, hitting the highest level the nation has ever had of 304. The figures should act as a reminder to companies that the mental health crisis needs to be included in their workplace violence prevention efforts. Although a worker who is violent to others may result in more victims, an employee’s suicide at work can have a serious and long-lasting effect on employees’ psyches. Experts note that the act of carrying out a suicide at work is a clear indication of problems in the work environment, one that can portend other violent and disruptive behavior.
Nationally, suicides are at a 50-year high in the US and is the tenth leading cause of death with more than 44,000 Americans killing themselves annually. Retail work is linked with higher suicide rates, according to a January 2020 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which analyzed data from 32 states to ascertain suicide rates for major industry and occupational groups. Rates could be calculated for 118 detailed occupational groups for males and 32 for females, according to the report, “Suicide Rates by Industry and Occupation—National Violent Death Reporting System,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, January 24, 2020.
Retail sales was not at the top of the list, but it was among the select few occupational groups found to have significantly higher suicide rates than those of the study population overall. Among males, seven groups had significantly higher suicide rates, including retail salespersons. Among females, they found five jobs correlated with higher suicide rates. In order:
- Artists and related workers
- Personal care aides
- Retail salespersons
- Waiters and waitresses
- Registered nurses
The mental health crisis among retail salespeople finds that they not only commit suicide at higher levels than most other workers, they are also more likely to carry out the act at work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Suicide in the workplace,” Monthly Labor Review, Dec. 2016. Suicides in the private retail trade industry made up 9.0 percent of the total workplace suicides from 2011 to 2013, while, during the same period, only 5.8 percent of all workplace fatalities occurred in that industry, a propensity ratio of 1.55.
“This ratio means that the proportion of workplace suicides in the private retail trade industry was 55 percent higher than the proportion of that industry’s share of workplace fatalities,” according to the analysis. “Interpreted differently, this ratio means that, compared with the rest of the workforce, private industry retail trade workers had a disproportionately higher share of workplace suicides.” Among all detailed occupations, first-line supervisors of retail-sales workers committed the second-most workplace suicides and had a propensity ratio of 2.61.
Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and board president of United Suicide Survivors International, said companies have started to recognize that the mental health crisis is not purely a medical or personal issue, but often is job related. “I was banging my head against the wall trying to convince companies to talk to me. Compared to now, when I’m getting calls from major global conglomerates seeking me out, looking for answers and strategy. There’s almost too much to do,” she told the Washington Post in their article “More Americans are Killing Themselves at Work,” Jan. 9, 2020.
While some work-related risk factors for suicide are fixed—including low education level, low skilled work, and low socio-economic status—some can be impacted, including levels of job stress, supervisory and colleague support, job control, and job security.
The issue of worker support is particular important during COVID-19 restrictions, a fact evidenced by the National Retail Federation’s recent partnership with the Crisis Prevention Institute to provide mental health crisis training for store employees who must contend with hostile and potentially violent customers who refuse to comply. It’s an issue that retail workers clearly find troubling, according to the Reddit forum for retail workers. “I am expected to tell people to pull their mask up, and while I agree and am happy we are enforcing it, I have had full blown panic attacks over how awkward and hostile the confrontations have become,” posted Cren22. “People getting angry at me telling them what to do, cussing me out, being rude to me over it. It’s unbearable.”
Elaine Palome, director of human resources at Axis Communications, told LP Magazine earlier this year that retailers might think about the business advantages of addressing workers’ concerns and fears. “Retail relies on the customer experience and if your employees aren’t feeling good—if they don’t feel secure, taken care of, and listened to—it’s nearly impossible to service customers in a way that is going serve the retail organization,” she said. Palome added that the last five years has marked a significant shift toward recognizing the importance of taking care of whole person and of capturing employees’ hearts and minds to make them feel a part of the business, something that is especially important in current operating environment.
There are benefits to a comprehensive approach to the mental health crisis and suicide prevention that include actions an employer can take, according to the CDC. These include:
- Promoting help-seeking
- Integrating workplace safety and health and wellness programs to advance the overall well-being of workers
- Referring workers to financial and other helping services
- Facilitating time off and benefits to cover supportive services
- Training personnel to detect and appropriately respond to suicide risk
- Creating opportunities for employee social connectedness
- Reducing access to lethal means among persons at risk
- Creating a crisis response plan sensitive to the needs of coworkers, friends, family, and others who might themselves be at risk
Careful management of sensitive issues is also important, suggests a review of recent incidents. For example, a big box retailer was sued in 2015 by the family of a retail cashier who killed himself three days after being fired, claiming that he was humiliated by a “walk of shame” in which he was escorted out of the store in handcuffs. In another incident, a longtime loyal grocery employee recently killed himself after being fired for violating company policy by chasing a shoplifter.
For More Information
CDC’s Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policy, Programs, and Practices provides strategies to prevent suicide and can serve as a resource for communities and employers.
This article was originally posted in December 2020 and update in June 2021.