Worker suicides and the economy

Lest anyone doubt that a severe recession can have devastating effects on the psyches of affected workers, here is some evidence worth taking very seriously.

Thomas H. Maugh II, in a piece for the Los Angeles Times (link here), reports on a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study indicating that among working age people, suicides increase during bad economic times and decline during more prosperous times.

Everyone is familiar with stories of businessmen jumping to their deaths from window ledges during the Great Depression. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that those stories, sometimes viewed as apocryphal, have a strong basis in fact: The rate of suicides rises during times of economic hardship and declines in periods of prosperity.

This is no quick snapshot of the current recession. The CDC study spans 80 years of data.

Confirming reportage

When reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”

Furthermore, Uchitelle found that “layoffs damage companies by undermining the productivity of those who survive but feel vulnerable, as well as the productivity of those who are laid off and get jobs again.  All lose some of the commitment, trust, and collegial behavior that stable employment or the expectation of stable employment normally engenders.”

Connecting two dots of the Great Recession

Yesterday’s news items on Boston.com, the website of the Boston Globe, invited some connect-the-dots analysis concerning the Great Recession:

Item 1 — Nearly 41 million Americans receiving food stamps

Among the “most e-mailed” news items was this Bloomberg wire service piece:

The number of Americans who are receiving food stamps rose to a record 40.8 million in May as the jobless rate hovered near a 27-year high, the government reported yesterday.

…Unemployment in July may have reached 9.6 percent, according to a Bloomberg News survey of analysts in advance of the Aug. 6 release of last month’s rate. Unemployment was 9.5 percent in June, near levels last seen in 1983.

Item 2 — Commuting nightmare on Interstate 93

Interstate 93 is a major artery in and out of Boston, and its traffic conditions basically control a commuter’s state of mind during rush hours.  As reported by Eric Moskowitz, I-93 commuters have faced a giant headache of a drive this week:

The surface of Interstate 93 ruptured here yesterday for the second day in a row, creating a gash large enough to swallow a car and snarling traffic for miles while the state performed emergency repairs that officials said will have the road open for this morning’s commute.

This was not your ordinary pothole situation.  As further reported by Moskowitz:

The vast holes that opened 25 feet apart on consecutive days were not the typical spring potholes bemoaned by New England drivers, but were caused by something far more serious: the decay of concrete and steel attributed to years of postponed maintenance.

It’s not that simple, or maybe it is?

We’ve got nearly 41 million people on food stamps, with unemployment levels remaining high and steady.  We have roads and bridges in this country that are badly in need of repair, with safety and quality of life at stake.

Among other things, we need a public works program that puts people back on a payroll doing the vital work of rebuilding America’s infrastructure.  The details are considerable, and from a standpoint of public policy it’s no easy fix, but for starters let’s look into matching our millions of unemployed with some of the nation’s real needs.

A horrible, senseless act of workplace violence

On the afternoon of December 27, a 39-year-old convenience store clerk named Surendra Dangol was killed after handing over the cash from his till to the gunman who decided to shoot him despite his apparent cooperation.  The murder occurred in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, where I happen to live.

District Attorney Dan Conley described the killing this way:

At about 3:00, the gunman entered the store, produced a firearm, and robbed Surendra. Contrary to some reports, there is no evidence to suggest that Surendra resisted or fought back. It’s clear that Surendra cooperated with his assailant. He didn’t act rashly or try to be a hero, and for that good judgment he was shot to death in cold blood.

The gunman then left the store and fled as a passenger in a four-door white sedan headed toward the Jamaicaway.

This was a shocking crime – not just because a man was killed but because he was gunned down for a small stack of bills that he gave up willingly. Surendra’s death should outrage every person of faith and conscience in our community.

Dangol was a native of Nepal, and he was saving up money to bring his wife and daughter to the United States.  Although he had just started to work at the store, customers who frequented it remarked that he was a friendly employee.  In other words, he was a decent man who was trying to make a better life for his family.

Universal Hub (a popular blog about Boston life that I contribute to on occasion) has the District Attorney’s full statement and a link to the store video released by the DA’s office of what happened that afternoon, without the actual shooting.  If you watch the video, you’ll see that Dangol was cooperating fully and did not appear to show any resistance or attitude.  For that he was shot. 

Workplace violence occurs in many ways, but this story brings it home.  Unfortunately, homicide is one of the leading causes of workplace fatalities, and workers in the retail service sector such as Dangol are among those at risk.  As a fact sheet from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration observes:

Workplace violence is violence or the threat of violence against workers. It can occur at or outside the workplace and can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide, one of the leading causes of job-related deaths. However it manifests itself, workplace violence is a growing concern for employers and employees nationwide.

Link to the Universal Hub post and the store video: http://www.universalhub.com/2009/last_moments_surendra_dangols_life

Link to OSHA Fact Sheet (pdf): http://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/factsheet-workplace-violence.pdf

“What makes a great job?”

I Googled this question and here are three of the hits:

1.  From Fast Company magazine (2007), five questions:

Does the job reflect your passion?
Will you have a great mentor?
Will you have opportunities to learn a lot, fast?
Does the job encourage rapid change?
Is the company either an EOC or an FPW? (You’ll have to read the full article to learn what they mean!)

For the full article, go here.

2.  From the Movin’ On Up blog (2007), a poll with 280 respondents to the question, “What’s Most Important When You’re Looking For a Job?”

Compensation level 14%
Location 5%
Job description 10%
Work environment 40%
Scheduling – getting the hours you need 12%
Benefits 11%
Company reputation 6%

For the full post, go here.

3.  From Today’s Workplace Blog (2007), an amalgam of observations and links, but featuring the work environment at Google, winner of that year’s Fortune 100 best places to work survey:

The very best company selected, Google, didn’t even exist a decade ago, but has quickly developed a reputation as a great place to work — so much so that they receive 1300 resumes a day. It’s partially the perks: free meals with 150 feet of every desk, swimming spa, and free doctors onsite. And those are just the most noteworthy. But those who work there also say it’s the culture: “Life for Google employees at the Mountain View campus is like college. It feels like the brainiest university imaginable – one in which every kid can afford a sports car (though geeky hybrids are cooler here than hot rods).”

For the full post, go here.

Curious about why these pieces ran in 2007?  Consider what happened the next year…

“Radical Middle Newsletter” supports dignity at work agenda

“Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” my article in the University of Richmond Law Review (link here) that sets out a “dignitarian” agenda for the future of employment law in the U.S., has been named among “12 of our most original and provocative and necessary visions” for law and public policy by Radical Middle Newsletter (link here), a popular online periodical authored by political writer and attorney Mark Satin.

Satin observes that “if you want real corporate change — especially change that benefits workers (and change that’s not subject to management fads) — then you need better laws,” adding that the law review article translates a dignity-based philosophy “into a practical political agenda for labor.”

“Human Dignity and American Employment Law” draws from legal history, human rights law, and emerging concepts in psychology in concluding that an inclusive labor movement, legal protections against unfair dismissal for all employees, and workplace bullying laws are among the major pieces of a needed dignitarian agenda for the workplace.

Satin’s  “State of our vision 2009” (link here) highlights “12 compelling visions that have been published over the last year by the current generation of post-partisan (aka transpartisan, aka radical centrist, aka post-socialist, aka transformational, nee New Age?) thinkers and activists.”  This extended article marks the planned final issue of his 10-year-old newsletter emphasizing “radical middle” approaches to law and policy reform.  Fortunately, he will be maintaining his wonderfully thoughtful, provocative, and content-rich website as he considers further writing projects.

***

For the section of Satin’s article referencing my work, go here.

Workplace bullying and human rights

One of the most important conceptual breakthroughs in the struggle against workplace bullying has been to frame this destructive, hurtful behavior as a violation of human rights and human dignity.  A few weeks ago, AsianWeek magazine did so with a very nice piece that connected workplace bullying to the 60th anniversary of the U.N. ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Author Phil Tajitsu Nash cogently made the case and gave a gracious nod to some of us who have been involved in the anti-bullying campaign: http://www.asianweek.com/2008/12/10/human-rights-at-60/.

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