Supporting an employee who is self-harming

Self-harm is a serious and sensitive issue that affects many individuals, including employees in the workplace. As an employer, it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of self-harm and to know how to support an employee who is self-harming. 


What is classed as self-harm?


Self-harm means that you harm yourself on purpose. Such as by banging or scratching the body, scalding with hot water, cutting, sticking sharp objects into the body, overdosing on medication, not letting wounds heal, biting, or burning. Whilst many people associate self-harm with younger people, anyone of any age, gender, and job title can self-harm.


Why do people self-harm?


Self-harm is not a mental illness, but it is often linked to mental distress. It is common for people to self-harm in secret if they feel as though their thoughts and feelings aren’t acceptable to other people. This is distressing for the person self-harming, their family and friends, colleagues, and manager/employer. Self-harm is more likely if a person takes illegal drugs or drinks too much alcohol. 


People self-harm for different reasons, which may change over time. Often it is shown as: 

  • Express how they feel when words don’t work or aren’t enough
  • Attempt to forget a traumatic experience
  • Transform thoughts and feelings into something physical as a short-term relief
  • Control over their body or environment
  • Create a reason why they require medical care or general care from others
  • Self-harm may have become a comfort for them & something they rely on
  • Attempt to reduce feelings and strong emotions such as guilt, anger or hopelessness
  • Express their feelings of self-hatred
  • Temporarily reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, or disconnect

People who self-harm don’t usually want to die. It may be a way to deal with difficulties they are facing in life, rather than a way of trying to end it. But self-harm can increase your risk of suicide if life is ended unintentionally.

Signs stop that an employee may be self-harming 

It can be difficult to tell whether someone is self-harming. Here are some signs that might suggest someone could be self-harming: 

  • Withdrawal or isolation from everyday/work life, low mood, tearfulness, lack of motivation, mood changes, talking about self-harming or suicide, drug or alcohol abuse, expressing feelings of failure, uselessness or loss of hope. 
  • Signs of low self-esteem such as blaming themselves for any problems or saying they are not good enough. 
  • Unexplained cuts, bruises or marks. 
  • Covering up all the time in hot weather. 
  • Being quieter than usual and lacking energy. 

It is important to know that these may be signs of other things and don’t always mean someone is self-harming. Or there may be no warning signs at all.

If you believe an employee is in immediate danger or has injuries that need medical attention, you must take action to ensure they are safe. Reassure the employee that you might not understand what they are going through or why they do it, but you want to support them by getting the right advice.

How to support an employee who is self-harming

Create a safe and supportive environment


  • It’s important to create an environment where the employee feels safe and supported. This means providing a safe and private space where the employee can talk about their feelings and experiences without fear of judgment or ridicule. Make sure that the employee knows that you are there to listen and support them and that their well-being is a top priority. Acknowledge it might be very difficult for them to open up about their mental health and self-harm. Don’t focus on details about specific injuries or behaviours, ask about how they are feeling and what they are going through. 

Provide resources and information


  • As an employer, it’s important to provide resources and information about self-harm and all aspects of mental health. This can include providing information about self-harm, numbers to mental health helplines, and other resources that the employee can access. You can also offer to connect the employee with a mental health professional. Such as an Occupational Therapist who specialises in mental health or counseller, who can provide more specialised support.


Create a flexible work environment


  • Employees who are struggling with self-harm may require flexibility in their work environment. This can include flexible scheduling, the ability to work from home, or other changes that can help the employee manage their self-harm and mental health. It’s important to work with the employee to find workplace alterations that work best for them.


Encourage the employee to seek professional help


  • While you as an employer you can provide valuable support, it’s important to encourage the employee to seek professional help. Self-harm is a serious issue that requires professional intervention. As an employer, you may not be equipped to provide the level of support that the employee may need. Encourage the employee to seek the help of a mental health professional who can provide more specialised support. Our Occupational Therapy service can provide advice on possible adjustments and support that the employer could offer, together with self-help advice to the employee, through a management referral. We also offer Occupational Therapy mental health support sessions in the workplace, or over the phone, in instances where an occupational health report is not required.


Monitor the employee’s progress


  • It’s important to monitor the employee’s progress and check in with them regularly. This can include scheduling regular meetings to discuss their progress and any changes that may need to be made to their work environment or schedule. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and to let the employee know that you are there to support them. Be open and honest and don’t judge the employee.


Management referrals


  • In some instances, you may believe that an employee cannot remain at work. That time off work would benefit them, and their mental health. Alternatively, they may already be off work, and you want to understand whether returning to work is the best thing for them and the business. A management referral is designed to establish and understand the current health of an employee, and advise on the next steps.


Supporting an employee who is self-harming requires a compassionate and understanding approach. As an employer, it’s important to create a safe and supportive environment. You can provide resources and information, and create a flexible work environment. Plus, workplaces can encourage employees to seek professional help, and monitor their progress. By taking these steps, you can help support an employee who is struggling with self-harm and mental health issues.


Contact Us


If you’d like to speak to a member of the Acorn Occupational Health team further about making a management referral, or supporting an employee with mental health issues by using our Occupational Therapy Support, please get in touch. Visit our FAQs page, call us at 01260 277797, or email us at

Want to know more about the Occupational Health services we provide at Acorn, and how they could benefit your business and your employees? Please get in touch.