17/05/2017 09:27 BST | Updated 17/05/2017 09:27 BST

Suicide Study: Another Reasons To Ban Precarious Employment?

Suicide is now the leading cause of death in adults under 50 in England, and the main cause of death among young people aged 20-34 across the UK and Ireland, with one person taking their own life every two hours. That's 6,000 deaths a year.

By the end of today, another 16 people will have ended their lives. Yet the government's third annual suicide report sets out to achieve the incredibly modest target of reducing the total number of suicides by just 10% by 2021.

This is not acceptable. Not least because a recent study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) clearly shows the impact that equally weak attempts to prevent insecure employment are having on the lives of the most vulnerable in society.

Suicide study findings

According to the study, which looks at suicide by occupation across England between 2011 and 2015, the risk of suicide among low skilled male laborers is three times higher than the male national average. Conversely, the lowest rates of suicide occur among those working in highly skilled occupations (such as managers, chief executives and senior officials).

This does not surprise me. Although top bosses might appear to have the most stressful jobs, being answerable to investors, the media and other stakeholders, it's actually the lowest paid employees, with their increasingly insecure employment, inflexible working hours and low wages, who are most likely to suffer the ill effects of poor mental health.

That's because job security and income security very much affect how much control you feel you have over your life and it's well known, in psychology circles, that the greater control you feel you have over your life, the more mentally resilient you are. A finding backed up by a study of suicide in Denmark, which found that after controlling the differences in income and employment levels in different occupations, the disparity in suicide risk diminished considerably.

Precarious employment is putting lives at risk. Yet there's still no sign of the 'gig economy' slowing down.

Precarious employment puts lives at risk

The simple fact is that precarious employment is putting lives at risk. Yet there's still no sign of the 'gig economy' slowing down. According to the Trade Union Congress (TUC), precarious low-paid work - low paid self-employment, agency working and zero-hours contracts - now affects one in 10 workers. This represents a huge increase of more than 80% in the last decade.

At the same time, new figures out last month show that two thirds of children living in poverty in the UK are living in working families. A situation brought about in no small part due to the growing number of employees being denied access to basic employment rights, due to the rapid increase in 'bogus' employment, which saw the number of people being employed on zero-hours contracts rise by 20% last year alone.

Increasing financial insecurity

Although these workers are technically self-employed, trade unions estimate that over half are effectively 'employed' by a single organization, but without the guaranteed hours, sick pay or benefits routinely enjoyed by colleagues on the regular payroll. Research from the TUC also shows that the average 'zero-hours' worker earns 50% less than the average 'employed' worker, as they're only entitled to receive the minimum wage for the hours they actually work. They earn nothing when they're 'on call' intensifying income insecurity even further.

To make matters worse, as well as having to live with the stress and anxiety levels associated with such precarious and low-paid employment, more and more employers are further damaging the mental health of low paid workers, by fining them in the event that they are too sick to work. UK Mail was recently accused of using 'inhumane' practices, after it charged a courier nearly £800 when he was unable to work as a result of a car accident while on duty.

Inhumane as these practices might be, they are also becoming increasingly commonplace, with the care industry now estimated to employ 160,000 workers on zero hours contracts, while the NHS has also adopted increasingly flexible contracts. No surprise then that the ONS study found that male and female carers had a risk of suicide that was almost twice the national average. Female health professionals were at 24% more risk, due to the high suicide rates associated with the nursing profession.

How can employers take proper care of the people who work for them if they're not first prepared to recognise them as proper employees?

Public Health England pleads with employers

In publishing the ONS findings, Duncan Selbie, CEO, Public Health England, urged "all employers, large or small, public or private sector to treat mental health as seriously as physical health." Adding that, "Early action can stop any employees reaching a desperate stage."

This call to action for employers is right and proper. If managers were trained and developed to identify people in emotional crisis and direct them towards appropriate support, there's no reason why another 115 people need to commit suicide by this time next week. But how can employers take proper care of the people who work for them if they're not first prepared to recognise them as proper employees?

When Matthew Taylor carries out his independent review into employment practices in the modern economy, he must take into account the impact of insecure working practices on the mental health of the workforce. He should also call to account the most exploitative sectors (construction, care and transport), ensuring that people working for single employers are no longer denied the income security and sense of control that's so essential to addressing the unacceptably high levels of suicide associated with precarious working.