Beneath the Bell Jar: Companies Confront a Rise in Workplace Suicides

Emily Holbrook


November 1, 2010

Foxconn, the world's largest maker of electronic components, employs so many workers that the company created a campus at its manufacturing site in Longhua, a city in China's Shenzhen province. Complete with dorms, a fire brigade and a downtown that features shopping, restaurants, a bank and a hospital, the 1.2-square-mile campus is home to nearly half of Foxconn's 920,000 employees. It sounds like a suitable place to live and work, but there is disturbing trend among those living there. This year alone, 11 Foxconn employees who resided at the Longhua campus have committed suicide -- many choosing to leap from the high-rise dormitories. The deaths brought an unwelcome focus to worker conditions at Foxconn. They also brought backlash against Apple, HP, Dell and Sony -- Foxconn's biggest clients.

This is not the first time the company's worker conditions have come under scrutiny. In June 2006, the London Daily Mail published a story detailing the harsh conditions for the 30,000 employees at Foxconn's Longhua iPod factory. Seeing a possible major reputation disaster looming, Apple dispatched several executives to investigate conditions at the plant. They issued a report detailing numerous violations of Apple's supplier code of conduct.

It is not only China where cruel worker environments have garnered recent unwanted attention. Europe's third largest telecommunications company, France Telecom, has lost 23 employees to suicide this year -- five of which died within a 10-day stretch in September. Before the rash of suicides, the company was working to promote a more profit-oriented culture, which led to staff cuts and more working hours. Sadly, France Telecom is no stranger to worker suicides. Last year, 19 of its employees took their own lives.

Though both companies employ hundreds of thousands of workers, the suicide rate at Foxconn and France Telecom is still above the national averages of China and France, respectively. The United States is not immune to the impact of workplace suicides either. In 2008, there were 251 workplace suicides, the highest total since the inception of the Bureau of Labor Statistic's Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 1992. The 2008 count is 28% higher than the 196 suicides recorded in 2007.

Harris, Rothenberg International, an employee assistance program (EAP) provider, has seen suicides and attempted suicides among the 2,600 client organizations and eight million employees it covers surge since December 2008. Before then, the company would receive calls regarding suicidal thoughts every one or two weeks. Now they get those types of calls every day. It is hard not to see the connection between this increase and the global economic downturn. Employers have been trying to do more with less, and many studies have shown a related spike in worker stress.

Though it is tragically coming after the fact, many companies are taking preventative measures to combat workplace suicides. Under pressure from Apple and other major clients, Foxconn gave all Longhua campus employees a 30% raise in June and followed that up with a 66% salary bump for all assembly line workers in October. The company also installed some 10 million feet of yellow mesh netting around its buildings and set up a counseling center staffed by 100 trained workers. Similarly, France Telecom's CEO Stephane Richard, who took over after his predecessor was seen as mishandling the case, launched more counseling and surveillance programs.

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center suggests that managers and fellow employees be alert to suicidal warning signs in co-workers and respond by talking to them or directing them to the company's EAP. If the company does not have an EAP, the center suggests that an owner or manager instructs the employee to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Emily Holbrook is the founder of Red Label Writing, LLC, a writing, editing and content strategy firm catering to insurance and risk management businesses and publications, and a former editor of Risk Management.