Supporting employees who self-harm

Supporting employees who self-harm

Self-harm is when someone deliberately carries out an act likely to cause them injury. This can take many forms such as deliberate cutting of arms or other body parts, biting or hair-pulling. It is frequently associated with younger people but can be present across age groups. The reasons why people self-harm is complex, but it is generally associated with creating an experience where the pain of the harm helps to reduce feelings of emotional distress. 

You may become aware of someone in your organisation who you think may be harming themselves. Some indicators that this could be the case can be: 

  • unexplained cuts, marks, bruises or burns 
  • only wearing long-sleeved clothing 
  • people often making space for privacy, e.g. long periods in the bathroom 

Some common myths about self-harm 

There are many myths about self-harm such as: 

  • Myth: People who self-harm are manipulative and attention-seeking. 
  • Fact: Self-harm is a way of coping with emotional distress. People usually self-harm in secret.

  • Myth: People who self-harm are trying to end their lives.
  • Fact: People self-harm as a means of managing their emotions and trying to cope and survive with difficult thoughts and feelings. It is not usually a suicide attempt. The distinction is in the intent.

  • Myth: Only teenage girls and “hysterical” women self-harm.
  • Fact: Self-harm can affect people of all ages, races, genders, sexualities, and economic backgrounds. 

  • Myth: The severity of the harm is reflective of the level of distress.
  • Fact: Self-harm is about the person and how they use it to cope and does not mean that one person’s problem is “worse” than another’s - we all have different levels of resilience. 

If someone in your organisation is self-harming, it can create a lot of anxiety. No one likes to think that someone is hurting themselves. However, it is important to stay calm and not to assume that simply stopping the self-harming is a priority. Self-harm fulfils a purpose for people and attempting to force someone to stop can be counter-productive and create more distress. It could also risk leading to more dangerous behaviours.

How can you support an apprentice who may be self-harming? 

As with concerns about suicide, the priority is to have a direct but compassionate conversation with the person, asking, “Are you doing things to hurt yourself?” If the person acknowledges this, communicate that you would like to help but that you are not going to try and make them stop. Provide a compassionate listening ear and signpost them to their GP and to organisations such as Penumbra who provide support in several areas of Scotland to people who self-harm. 

If the person is harming at work and you are aware of this, you will need to carry out a risk assessment to manage this, but this should be done in a collaborative and supportive way with the person, with a strong communication that they are not being judged. Again, organisations such as Penumbra can support you to do this in ways that ensure you are fulfilling your duties but supporting the person compassionately.

Find resources on self-harm

You can access a range of resources on self-harm from Penumbra, a leading mental health charity.

View resources on Self-Harm on Penumbra website

Read our useful guides

Cover of PDF file Mental Wellbeing - Support for Apprentices, showing a young man smiling at a work tableIn partnership with mental health charity Penumbra we have compiled four comprehensive guides to accompany this web resource. These two guides, for employers, will help you to support your apprentices' mental health at work. The two guides for apprentices can be found in our Mental Health resource for apprentices.

View PDF guide Mental Wellbeing - Support for Apprentices

View PDF guide Supporting Apprentices around Suicide and Self-Harm




Logo of mental health charity Penumbra

We are grateful to mental health charity Penumbra for providing advice and information on mental health for this resource. If any of your apprentices or other employees need support, you should encourage them to contact a GP or professional mental-health support organisation.

Find support organisations for mental health