Inequality Drives Propensity for Workplace Suicide

March 19, 2020

Suicide in the workplace has been a growing concern. Chart 1, below, shows the upward trajectory of the number of occupational suicides. Between 2011 and 2018, suicides in the workplace grew by 22%–from 250 in 2011 to 304 in 2018.

This article suggests that a proximate cause of workplace suicides is inequality. More specifically, I first look at the ratio of the 90th percentile in earnings over the 10th percentile in earnings for each industry. The greater the ratio, the higher the inequality in the industry. The top five industries with the highest inequality ratios are:

Figure 2.  Top 5 industries with the highest inequality (90th percentile/10th percentile)
IndustryInequality Ratio (90th Percentile/10th Percentile)
Professional, scientific, and technical services5.5
Finance and insurance5.1
Wholesale Trade4.8
Health Care and Social Assistance4.7

Next, I examine the propensity of suicide for each industry. The propensity ratio for each industry is measured by the percent of all workplace suicides that occurred in Industry A divided by the percent of all workplace fatalities that occurred in Industry A. Propensity ratios higher than 1.00 indicate a higher propensity for an attribute; propensity ratios lower than 1.00 indicate a lower propensity for an attribute. A propensity ratio of 1.00 is neutral. To put it in context, a propensity ratio of 1.55, for example, means that compared with the rest of the workforce, this industry had a 55% higher share of workplace suicides. The top 5 industries with the highest propensity of suicide are:

Figure 3.  Top 5 industries with the highest propensity for suicide
IndustryPropensity Ratio
Finance and Insurance3.42
Professional, scientific, and technical services2.86
Health care and social assistance2.18
Other services (except public administration)2.13

Finally, to determine whether occupational suicides are driven in part by inequality, I run a bivariate regression of the propensity score for suicide on the inequality ratio. I find that a one point increase in the inequality ratio increases the propensity for suicide by 51% (see Figure 4, below). This finding is very statistically significant, which means that it is unlikely to be due to chance.

Figure 4.  Regression results of propensity score on inequality ratio
CoefficientStandard ErrorT-StatisticSignificant?
Inequality Ratio0.51491470.19070642.7Yes

This short exercise documents that inequality can have a real impact on employee welfare. In fact, it can help predict workplace suicides. This is especially worrisome for two reasons–because workplace suicides are on the rise and so is inequality. For further study, it would be interesting to find out how exactly does inequality increase stress and mental health problems that contribute to workplace suicides.

Sources: https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2016/article/suicide-in-the-workplace.htm, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf, https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2015/a-look-at-pay-at-the-top-the-bottom-and-in-between/home.htm,

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