Supporting employees who self-harm

Find out how to support staff who are, or may be, self-harming.

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 often associated with younger people but can be present across age groups.

The reasons why people self-harm is complex. It's 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's 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

In partnership with mental health charity Penumbra we've compiled 4 comprehensive guides to accompany this web resource.

These 2 Employer Guides will help you to support your apprentices' mental health at work. The 2 Apprentice Guides can be found in our Mental Health resource for apprentices.

Explore the rest of our Mental Health resource

What are mental health difficulties?

What we mean by mental health difficulties and how you can help apprentices at work.

A healthy working environment

Creating and maintaining a healthy working environment benefits employees at all levels.

Supporting employees around suicide

It's important to know how to support employees at risk of suicide. Find information and links here.

Your duties as an employer

Advice about your duties in supporting the mental health of your apprentices and other employees.

Go to start of resource

You'll find links to the other parts of the resource as well as a list of mental health support organisations.

Further support

Support for you - apprenticeships 2 432 x 288

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

Mental Health resource for apprentices

We've also pulled together a companion resource for apprentices. This is a good first place to guide people to if you're worried about their mental health.

View Mental Health at Work - a resource for apprentices