Most people don’t believe that Federal employment is dangerous work, and statistics back this up with one glaring exception.
While the job-related fatality rate for Federal workers is less than half the rate in private industry, suicides are increasingly becoming the reported cause of Federal employees’ deaths.
New data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics over this past holiday season show that Federal employee suicides are at their highest level as measured by records going back 15 years, with suicides accounting for 28% of the 124 Federal employee job-related deaths in 2018.
In contrast, suicides accounted for only 5% of the 4,779 private industry employees who died on the job in 2018.
BLS records the event as a suicide if the suicide occurred on the work premises or if the suicide occurred off the work premises but can be definitively linked back to work.
Suicides Affecting More Workers in More Federal Agencies
Since 2011, the number of self-inflicted intentional fatalities among Federal workers has more than doubled to 35, although the Federal workforce has remained approximately the same size.
Most suicides continue to involve Federal employees in work related to law enforcement, such as US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers, although the dangers of suicide are not confined to these agencies.
In 2016, 15 of the 16 reported suicides were by Federal workers employed in an agency related to national security, such as CBP.
In 2018, 7 of the 35 suicides were by Federal workers employed by agencies outside national security.
Job Stress as a Contributing Factor
While BLS does not collect data on the motivations for why workers choose to take their own lives, other commentators believe that job-related stress issues may play a role.
As Jeff Neal pointed out in his FedSmith.com article back in October, “Federal workers are not immune to job-related stress, and many occupy jobs that cause high levels of stress.”
Justin Rohrlich and Zoë Schlanger wrote on Quartz.com that “At CBP [US Customs and Border Protection], one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country, more than 100 employees died by suicide between 2007 and 2018, according to the agency itself.”
In May, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) asked for additional funding for their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) citing “increased demand for EAP Services has pushed the amount of contract obligations to current ceiling.”
The Council of Prison Locals C-33 National President Shane Fausey, who represents more than 30,000 bargaining unit employees within the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), told Government Executive that he believes, based on his almost 30 years of experience working in the prison system, that staffing levels could be contributing to the high number of suicides.
“You have to look at the overall picture to make a true assessment and I’ve never seen our staffing numbers so abysmal in my career,” he said. “I’ve never seen it this bad.”
Union officials representing Federal air marshals estimate that the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) was experiencing 3 to 5 suicides a year of active duty or recently-retired air marshals, and in February, a 36-year-old TSA officer apparently committed suicide when he jumped from the balcony of the Hyatt Regency located inside the Orlando International Airport.
Federal Government Response
The Federal government has responded to the problem of worker suicides by setting up The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) as a federally supported resource center devoted to advancing the implementation of the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.
At the end of the year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the creation of 988 as a national crisis hotline number. The 3-digit dialing code will replace the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s current 10-digit number.
“Three-digit access to crisis services represents a national recognition that seeking help for behavioral health and suicidal crisis is just as much a part of life as seeking help for fire, for injury, or for other health and wellness needs,” according to Dwight Holton, CEO of suicide prevention nonprofit Lines for Life.
It remains to be seen whether such programs will be able to successfully quell what is becoming an epidemic in the Federal workforce.