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Consulting on a Suicide Epidemic

According to recent reports from China, since the beginning of the year 13 workers from Foxconn, a large factory in Shenzhen, have committed suicide.

This article originally appeared online at psychiatrytalk.com.

13 Suicides In One Factory in China

According to recent reports from China, since the beginning of the year 13 workers form Foxconn a large factory in Shenzhen have committed suicide. Foxconn manufactures products for Apple, Hewlett Packard and Dell. Some reports in the media tell of difficult working conditions where plant workers could not talk while working and were fined for mistakes. The average salary of workers in the factory was $140/month but since the reports of suicide, it reportedly has been raised 66%. On the other hand, in an effort to discourage suicides, the factory has stopped offering compensation to families of those who have killed themselves since it must have been thought that this compensation might be an incentive for some of the workers to commit suicide. It is also reported that some of the political leaders in China are unhappy with the bad publicity that this rash of suicides has been bringing to China and are taking steps to stop it. Nets are being built around the dormitories where many of the workers have jumped off in their suicide attempt. More appropriately counselors were being trained and brought in.

Similar Situation in the United States

This situation reminds me of a somewhat similar set of circumstance in which I had been involved. Many years ago I was asked to be part of a small team to study a series of suicides that had occurred at a large entity that was frequently in the public eye. The press was clamoring for answers about this unusual problem and management was concerned about the bad publicity. They assured us that they would do whatever they could to help us get to the bottom of this problem and expected a full report from our team within 60 days.

Approach to the Consultation

Our first step was to meet with the managers and supervisors, as well as the union leaders. Management agreed to help us in any way but the union people were suspicious that we were going to whitewash the problem. After much discussion and many meetings, we convinced them that we were independent of management and although we would ultimately be reporting to them, we would pull no punches. They agreed to encourage full access for us. This initial step was very important.

We obtained the all records and documents of the workers who had suicided. We attempted to meet with their co-workers. Although meeting with their families would probably be enlightening, we ultimately decided not to do so. Since much of the work of this entity involved vehicles driving from place to place we arranged to ride with them and chat informally in addition to the structured interviews that we did as noted above. As some of the emerging information indicated that working condition, time schedules, salary, benefits and opportunities for advancement might be an important factors in the suicides, our team made an effort to benchmark this entity in regard to these factors using similar entities in other cities in the US and internationally.

Findings

We found that there was a great deal of demoralization among the highly skilled work force which may have contributed to the suicides. As far as we could determine, most of the employees were very dedicated to their work but felt that management did not care a great deal about them. They were expected to frequently work overtime (with pay) but often did critical work while sleep deprived. A small undetermined percentage took drugs mostly to stay awake and mentally sharp (some to deal with their demoralization and depression). We heard of examples of workers doing work which could endanger other’s lives while under the influence of such drugs. They felt that their work skills were not easily transferred to other jobs and also believed that there was little chance for advancement within their current job. There were some circumstances where workers became psychologically traumatized related to their work. However most people whom we interviewed shared the belief that if they complained of being depressed, anxious and not able to work , they would be penalized in the job.. We had the impression that this lack of support contributed to the suicidal behavior which had occurred in at least several instances.

Our study team prepared an extensive report with these findings and with a list of constructive suggestions which was based on our interviews and our benchmarking inquires. We suggested policies concerning time off , breaks and areas where breaks could occurs. We advised drug and alcohol educational programs with a guaranteed no penalty for those who sought help for these issues or any mental health concern which should not be part of the employment record. We suggested a review of the salary, vacation pension and promotion policy based on the preliminary information that we had from our examination of other similar entities. We did not think that meaningful changes would be a financial burden and in the long run would provide more efficient functioning. We also suggested a mentoring program utilizing senior people, many of whom were held in high esteem by the younger workers.

Consultation Report Initially Rejected

We were surprised at the total rejection of our report by the highest level of management. They told us we would have to rewrite the report or we would not be paid for our services. I believe that they had expected us to confirm their belief that the people who suicided were mentally unstable and not typical of the work force. While that was true in some of the cases, we obviously felt that there were factors stressing the workers and that suicidal behavior was one result of these factors which needed to be addressed. It also appeared that the highest level of management was concerned that his report might be leaked to the press which of course we had no intention of doing. Ultimately the report was accepted as a confidential report. Some but not all the recommended changes were made over several years. The unusual number of suicides did not continue and in fact may have been a coincidence which unearthed some problems which needed to be addressed.

Michael Blumenfield, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist practicing in Woodland Hills, CA. He blogs at PsychiatryTalk.com — a blog for everyone interested in mental health issues.