Self-harm is rarely about ‘attention seeking’. Nor is it something that only teenagers do to be part of whatever group is in vogue at the time.
If, like me, you’ve never experienced self-harm, it might have understandably slipped under your radar. It is often misunderstood and hardly ever talked about, especially in the workplace. But it’s about time we all learned more about it.
Have personal experience of self-harm in the UK (YouGov Poll)
Believe it or not, the UK has the highest self-harm rate of any other country in Europe. A recent YouGov poll of more than 2,000 British adults revealed that 21% of 18-34-year-olds have personal experience of self-harm, as do 10% of 35-54-year-olds.
With the UK workforce showing more and more signs of stress and mental ill health, this is surely set to increase – unless we do something about it, of course.
What is self-injury, and why do people do it?
Self-harm (also called self-injury and sometime self-mutilation) isn’t classified as an illness per se, but it is often a reflection of a deeper underlying issue. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) defines it as:
an intentional act of self-poisoning or self-injury, irrespective of the motivation or apparent purpose of the act, and is an expression of emotional distress.
It isn’t always about “cutting” either. Self-harm can take the form of bruising, burning, scratching and hair-pulling. That might seem pretty extreme to somebody who has never experienced it, and there are many reasons why people may engage in behaviour that causes themselves harm.
The act is often a way of coping with emotional distress (or communicating the significance of it) or obtaining relief from an otherwise overwhelming situation.
It may also literally make a person feel better. We know that when injured, the body releases natural pain killers (endorphins) and other chemicals which can alter mood. For some, this can give instant relief, a sense of control over a situation. When everything in your life is out of your control – like pressure or expectations at home or work – this is perhaps the one thing you are in control of.
‘…an expression of emotional distress’ says NICE. A powerful thought. Not so much about attention seeking, but rather ‘attention needing’ perhaps?
Contrary to popular belief, self-harm is not attempted suicide. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – it’s a coping method, for some a way of keeping alive. But this method has obvious risks, and we know the risk of death by suicide is up to ten times greater when compared with those who do not self-harm.
How do I recognise it in the workplace?
You might think this doesn’t affect your workplace. But could it have slipped under your nose without you realising it? After all, it is a very secretive, personal act.
So what to look out for? First, the obvious…
- Cuts, burns or scratches that don’t look like an accident
- Regularly bandaged arms and/or wrists
- Frequently reported “accidents” that are causing injury
- Taking more time off work for sickness and doctor/hospital visits
- Wearing long sleeves and/or trousers even when it’s hot
- Resistance or reluctance to wear short-sleeved uniform
But do remember that, just like any other mental health issue, people can become expert at hiding it.
What can I do to help?
If you think a colleague might be self-harming, don’t ignore it, assuming someone has it in hand. It could be they are in such distress that it is the only way they can function or get to work each day.
They almost certainly want to be a good employee and are often very dedicated – they just need the right support. Here are some things you can do to help:
- Don’t act shocked.
- Find a private moment to talk with the person – let them know that you’re concerned, and that you’re here to listen.
- If they admit to self-harming, make sure you remain calm and non-judgemental at all times. Respecting their right to confidentiality is very important – don’t mention the issue in front of anybody else but never agree to keep it secret.
- If your company has an Occupational Health programme, encourage the person to seek help with them.
- Try to be flexible with uniform if possible. Don’t draw attention to their clothing, for example if they’re wearing long sleeves on a hot day.
- Be understanding with any requests for time off for medical appointments and sickness. However, if they’re taking too much time off work, be clear to them about sick pay and any requirement to make up for time.
Self-Injury Awareness Day (SIAD) – a globally-recognised day dedicated to raising awareness. With so much of our lives spent at work, it strikes me that we should all be educating ourselves about this growing issue.
If you or someone you know is struggling, or you would just like more information, there are loads of resources out there to help, including: