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Small business

It's a deadly business

July 25, 2014
Men are several times more likely to attempt suicide than women.

Men are several times more likely to attempt suicide than women.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a US government department, released a list of the professions in which suicide was the most prevalent. Here, in order, was the top five:

  • Dentists
  • Pharmacists
  • Physicians
  • Lawyers
  • Engineers

A different result arose when a study into suicide was conducted in the UK, with the results published last year in the Psychological Science journal. What makes the British study interesting is that it compares changes in suicide over the past three decades. In the early 80s, the most suicide-prone workers were veterinarians, merchant seafarers, hotel porters, pharmacists and hospital porters. The most recent figures show the top five are now:

  • Coal miners
  • Merchant seafarers
  • Labourers in building trades
  • Window cleaners
  • Artists

Similar statistics in Australia are unavailable, so it could be different here again. But it’s nonetheless worth taking a look at the factors that might explain why some people in some jobs are at greater risk than others.

The British study, the results of which can be found here, show that one reason for those rankings could be that men are several times more likely to attempt suicide than women, which explains why so many of the top five professions are in male-dominated industries.

Perhaps more tellingly, in previous decades, rates of suicide among certain professions were associated more with the jobs in which people found it easier to get access to the materials they needed to perform their unfortunate final act. But, these days, the landscape has changed markedly.

In the British study, the researchers found something in common among the occupations in which the rate of suicide had risen by more than 40 per cent. These include coal miners, plasterers, forklift drivers, stevedores, construction workers, and even butchers. Those industries have been contracting, in the UK at least, and this brings with it a host of anxieties, such as the stress of finding new employment and the difficulty in adjusting to significant change.

There are two more factors worth considering, as articulated by the British scholars. One is that social isolation at work is a suicide risk, and the other is that some occupations tend to attract high-risk workers.

So, how does that contrast with the United States, which produced a significantly different top five list? It’s worth looking at the prevalence of suicide among dentists, which has plagued the industry for years, and has been dismissed by many as a myth perpetuated, I guess, by articles like this one.

Two years ago, researchers at the University of Nebraska looked into this further. They disagreed with the findings. They questioned, for example, the methodology used to gather the information, such as the small sample sizes. That, combined with the relatively few people working in dentistry, distorted the data. Fair enough.

They concede, though, that there are some stressors, not necessarily unique to the dental industry but certainly a big part of it, which may contribute to the higher rates of depression and suicide. These include the management of a solo practice, the dissatisfaction some patients have with their treatment, and the tendency to work long hours without taking a break.

All three factors (if you were to substitute the word ‘patients’ with ‘clients’) could apply to many professions. According to Suicide Prevention Australia, almost one in five suicides in this country are presumed to be work related. This includes stress, workplace arguments, retrenchment, performance pressures, job dissatisfaction, long hours, and more.

If you have a colleague or an employee at risk, they suggest you should:  

  • Express acceptance and concern.
  • Encourage them to talk.
  • Refer them to a specialist.
  • Provide as much flexibility as possible.
  • Eliminate stress or hazards that might make the problem worse.

Because, if they overcome it, they might realise, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, that life does get swell again after the hell is over.

Do you work in any of the professions mentioned above? What are your views?

SuicideLine: 1300 651 251

Lifeline: 131 114
Mens Line: 1300 78 99 78

beyondblue.org.au

Follow James Adonis on Twitter: @jamesadonis

10 comments

  • Hemingway committed suicide.

    Commenter
    pass the cake
    Location
    Date and time
    July 31, 2014, 10:28PM
  • I work in law and I know a lot of people in my office alone who have dealt with depression at some point, including myself. Of my law school friends a lot of them have come out saying they're seeing a psychologist. I went to a reunion recently and there was this really flat vibe in the air. A lot of people looked really haggard and just so miserable.
    I think it's partly to do with the fact that law attracts a lot of highly competitive, overly ambitious people. Team this with a bad market and you have a lot of people who are vulnerable to the sorrow of unmet aspirations and misaligned expectations. The work can also be a lot less inspiring than law school, and also involve really long, draining hours, amongst many other factors.
    At the end of the day I don't think I would be any less depressed in another job. I think it's just my personality, like a lot of my fellow lawyers, just anxiously needing to achieve and driven by a constant need to push forward. This trait isn't often the best makeup for a happy disposition.

    Commenter
    SA
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 01, 2014, 9:13AM
    • Law is notoriously ravaging when it comes to work-life balance as you first start out. OTOH, the financial rewards can be substantial later on, enabling you to provide very well for your family, and even some major luxuries such as million dollar beachfront holiday homes and yearly family trips to Vale business class. If materialism and social status is your thing, then go for it. The biggest problem with law, and why I advised my kids against a legal career, is that it is primarily a win-lose business. While you enjoy those celebratory drinks after a case, someone will cry themselves to sleep that night. Contrast that to for example medicine: a Doctor doesn't have to kill another Doctors patient to save his own. Perhaps the harshness of that simple reality does eat at some lawyers ID as they mature through life.

      Commenter
      Greg
      Location
      Brissy
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 12:50PM
    • As an hyperactive person, I consider ambition or aspiration to be good but it should never be at a cost whereby you have to compromise on your values. Often, you are exposed to the best and worst of people's behavior and as an advocate, you go where the limit of the laws take you. Even despite conducting the best of your knowledge and experience, you are blatantly harassed, misjudged, and at some point abused in all directions. You develop a thick skin so thick you might as well end up with a concrete conscience whilst you are mortally wounded. The hours are long, solitary, and slightly resembling a psychological detention but the obsession drives you - the perfection challenges you, the limitations frustrate but it does not matter - you either live bravely or live safely. You are kept inspired by so few people who take the time to understand the nature of your profession. Law is not a job - it is a profession, a commitment to oneself and to the community to do public good. Often such understanding of your vocation removes you and even isolate you from those who perceive your work as nothing more than for mere economic gain. It is extremely competitive but within the storm of competition, some days are just extremely wonderful and I'd rather have few days of wonder so I can ride the waves of lows.

      Commenter
      Postgirl
      Location
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 1:08PM
  • Maybe some lawyers finally grow a conscience after years of getting rich from destroying peoples lives.

    Commenter
    Ryan
    Location
    Date and time
    August 01, 2014, 10:57AM
  • Notice that Australian statistics are unavailable, which, considering that suicide is the biggest killer of males under 44 and females 34 is shocking. We sweep this issue under the rug. There is no detection or prevention process. I work in a large company in administration for two years and I have not even met HR. I am still a 'temp' even though my dedication has far exceeded a 6 month period. I feel disposable. When I raise the query about the possibility of becoming a permanent employee, I am shut down with the layers of Management, Middle Management, Senior Management. I do not even know who my boss is. I dedicate my life to my work because without it I cannot pay my living expenses. But for my dedication and sacrifice I still am not considered worthy enough to become a permanent member of the team. And thus far I feel like all my hard work is worthless. My father committed suicide when I was 11, whilst working in a call center. And now as an adult I actually understand why. We are isolated. We are forced to sit in front of computers all day long under florescent lighting. No windows or fresh oxygen. No contact with the outside world. Prisoners are able to exercise more freedom than the average office worker. A prisoner's well-being is better managed than that of the average office worker. And you wonder why people opt out permanently.

    Commenter
    Jessica
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    August 01, 2014, 11:04AM
    • The problem isn't isolation so much as lack of purpose. I would love to have my own office, or better yet work from home, and not have to work in an open plan office with superficial, delusional individuals. The problem is not social connectedness, the problem is trying to find meaning in meaningless tasks.

      Commenter
      Melbourne Woman
      Location
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 3:34PM
  • These statistics vary according to country of origin so cannot be extrapolated to Australia where I believe it is a fight between psychiatrists and veterinarians for number one position.

    Commenter
    Black Dog
    Location
    Date and time
    August 01, 2014, 12:46PM
  • I personally do not believe that the suicide rates are directly related to a particular profession. More likely relationship breakdown/pressure or family issues in general, however this may be worsened when those issues are taken to the work environment. It is quite odd that no research exists in Australia given the high rates of suicide. It would surely help in prevention and save many precious lives.

    Commenter
    Warren
    Location
    Date and time
    August 01, 2014, 3:17PM
  • I understand that the suicide rate amongst vets can be quite high due to dealing with some shocking animal cruelty cases.

    Commenter
    Belinda
    Location
    New Zealand
    Date and time
    August 01, 2014, 3:36PM
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