Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Suicide and organizations

I’ve come across two thought-provoking articles today, and the thoughts they provoked were not pleasant. One is a piece in The Guardian by Seamus Milne about the growth of ‘zero-hours contracts’ in the UK. With such contracts, workers are on standby to work, but with no guarantee of any actual work, and therefore payment, eventuating. In many cases, the contract forbids the person from working for anyone else either. Hailed by neo-liberals as an example of ‘flexible employment’, it is clear that all the flexibility is on the part of the worker. The consequent insecurity is obvious – no guaranteed income from week to week for a start, no pension or fringe benefits, no prospect of buying a home, difficult to sustain a family – in short, the full weight of the new insecurity I wrote about here a couple of months ago. And, although Milne does not make this connection, increasingly, there is little or no safety net, with recent clampdowns on benefits for the disabled in particular leading to a spate of suicides and an even greater upsurge in suicidal thoughts. Meanwhile, as I noted in my book (p.117), suicide rates in Greece have risen alarmingly since 2009 (and the rise has continued since I wrote that)  and there can be little doubt that the cause of this is the social and psychological dislocation caused by the economic crisis.

Suicidal desperation is at the heart of Jenny Chan’s recently published paper entitled ‘A Suicide Survivor: The Life of a Chinese Worker’ in New Technology, Work and Employment. Unusually for an academic article, this is a powerfully written paper and it recounts the life of a Chinese worker who attempted suicide, apparently a growing trend.  We often here of the rise of the knowledge economy and new organizational forms which stress creativity and freedom, but the hidden heart of this economy is what Chan describes as “a production model apparently based on classic Taylorism” (p.88). The intense discipline of life on the line of an outsourcing company producing Apple's i-phones is described in chilling detail, culminating thus: “The accumulated effects of endless assembly line toil, punishing work schedules, harsh factory discipline, a friendless dormitory and, rejection from managers and administrators, compounded by the company’s failure to provide her with income, and then her inability to make contact with friends and family, were the immediate circumstances of her attempted suicide. Her testimony reveals how she was overwhelmed, ‘I was so desperate that my mind went blank’. At 8 a.m. on March 17, Yu jumped from the fourth floor of her dormitory building in despair. After 12 days in a coma, she awoke to find that her body had become half paralysed. She is now confined to a bed or a wheelchair” (p. 91). It is not just in harsh factory conditions that work-related suicides are found. For example, in 2008 and 2009 there was a wave of suicides amongst employees of France Telecom, with many leaving notes blaming work pressures in an organization undergoing massive restructuring.

Suicide is undoubtedly the most powerful and extreme act of the powerless and desperate, a complex response to, and creator, of trauma and its causes are equally complex, and varied. One part of its power is to make it almost undiscussable and, certainly, one should never draw glib conclusions from and about suicides. But, equally, as Salford University academics Jo Milner and Ian Cummins note (and give links to further research on), the links between suicide levels and social and economic conditions are well-established, and have been since at least the publication of Emile Durkheim’s  1897 book, Suicide. So it would certainly be glib to consign suicide to the realms of individual psychology. If we have global economic systems and associated organizational systems of work and welfare which engender suicide then we (including and perhaps especially those of us whose profession is the study of organizations) should not be shy of saying so. Terms like flexibility, welfare reform, global supply chain efficiency and organizational restructuring sound neutral and unexceptionable. What lies behind them may be horror.


  1. Hi Chris
    Sorry not to have commented sooner. Thanks for so many thought-provoking blogs over the past few months. Whilst I always read them I do not always feel inclined to respond partly because I have little to add beyond the convention of pressing "like".
    If you were on linkedin or even Facebook you could post links to your blog and might well get more (unwelcome, perhaps, for a university teacher?) responses.
    On the earlier matter of smoking, perhaps you should give up!
    Have you read Orwell's "Books v Cigarettes", on sale in the British Library bookshop.
    Do what thou wilt.

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, John. The suggestion of linking to linkedin and facebook is a good one. I'm not too clued up on these things, and feel a bit suspicious of them, to be honest - but maybe need to do this. That said, from the blog stats I can see that there are actually a lot of people looking at it (a few hundred visits a month) but very few comments. I'd welcome more responses!

      On giving up smoking well, yes, maybe. But the point about that post was that even if someone gave up smoking and took to e-cigarettes then they would still get hassled. And, more, that this discloses something strange about 'governance' i.e. that the ban on e-cigs on train platforms comes via a strange corporate logic, not from law.

      Thanks for the Orwell reference - I will look it out.

  2. A number of factors, not least the recent suicide at Imperial College, have brought back to mind the tragic case of my friend Diana Winstanley who committed suicide when working at Kingston University. Anyone who knew Diana was aware that she was not the type of person given to suicidal thoughts and that her death was precipitated by a variety of work-related pressures. I am also aware of other academic suicides (aamong both students and staff) which cause much grief to their peers and embarrassment to their institutions which then engagein all kinds of expiatory gestures. I wonder if there is a register of academic suicides and how academia compares to other sectors in this regard.

    I am sorry I missed this excellent posting when it first came out - very sobering indeed.

  3. Thanks, Yiannis, for this comment, which I have only just seen. Yes, I knew Diana (slightly) as well and thought of her both as I was writing this posting and when I heard about the Imperial College suicide.


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