The study, conducted by Stockholm and Oxford Universities, shows that men exposed to a suicide in the family are 8.3 times more likely to commit suicide themselves. Those exposed to suicide at work are 3.5 times more likely to end their own lives.
The researchers, who have published their findings in the journal Social Forces, have therefore concluded that while the effects of social interaction are larger within the family, workplace exposure is more significant for the suicide rate as typically individuals have more colleagues than family members.
“Since there are so many more individuals who experience a suicide in their workplace, the aggregate effect is greater than what can be ascribed to the family,” said Professor Peter Hedström, one of the researchers at Oxford University who carried out the study.
Social networks are known to be a forum for the diffusion of a range of behaviour patterns, attitudes and feelings. Previous research has confirmed that an individual's surroundings influence choice.
The researchers wanted to study whether this knowledge can be applied to the drastic step of taking one's own life.
In line with previous research the study found that a suicide in the family increases the suicide risk for both women and men.
But the study also indicates that the “contagious effect” of the workplace leads to twice as many suicides among men than the impact of a suicide in the family.
“By tying together relatives and colleagues, we could see which individuals have someone in the family or in the workplace who committed suicide,” said Monika K.Nordvik, one of the researchers at Stockholm University who carried out the study.
“We then studied whether the suicides of others increase or decrease their risk of suicide when we have controlled for other known risk factors.”
The study is based on comprehensive statistics of the 1.2 million people living in the Swedish capital over an average of 5.6 years in the 1990s. 1,116 of them committed suicide.
1,500 Swedes take their own lives each year.