Suicides spike as Europe’s economy crumbles

The meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.

Barbie Latza Nadeau reports for Newsweek (link here) on increasing suicide rates in countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, and Ireland — all of which are in the throes of severe economic crises. She observes that “(i)n the countries most affected by the euro-zone crisis, depression is on the rise and suicides are spreading.” In addition, amid widespread unemployment in these countries, governments are cutting back on social support services for the jobless and those in need of assistance:

“The main reason for the rise in suicides is the recession and now austerity—both making hard times more difficult and reducing funding for mental-health services,” says David Stuckler, a Cambridge professor who coauthored a report on the health effects of the economic crisis in Europe. “Usually an epidemic is thought of as a short-term increase in a disease—by that criterion, suicides would be an epidemic.”

Nadeau begins her piece with three stories of three Italian workers who committed suicide due to their personal financial struggles. I suggest checking it out if you want a clearer sense of the human costs of this recession.

Cutting back when the need is greatest

Austerity can be a sound philosophy and practice when you need to cut back on spending, and surely many individuals and organizations manage to do so when times are tough. But in this context, austerity has meant sharp cuts in government support of those who most need assistance, including social services to help people who are struggling with life’s harsh challenges.

When America faced the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government enacted the New Deal legislation that created a stronger social safety net, including the minimum wage, Social Security, and public insurance for our bank accounts. Ironically, it was this influx of government spending, followed by the huge increase in public expenditures necessary to fight the Second World War, that saved capitalism and put America on path for its greatest era of prosperity.

The European economy today is different from that of the U.S. during the 1930s, but the point about government support is no less relevant. When people have nowhere to turn, some choose the most terrible option.

On suicide

It pains me that suicide comes up so often in discussions of depression, desperation, and despair related to work and livelihood. Before I began to understand the psychological impact of work and the economy, I did not comprehend how severe setbacks and traumatic experiences linked to employment (or lack thereof) might be related to suicide.

I get it now. The increasing suicide rate in Europe is horrific in itself, as well as the canary in the coal mine. We must pay attention.

ILO report: The world of work is in a world of hurt

In a new report, the International Labour Organization — the employment research and policy arm of the United Nations — concludes that there is no fast recovery in sight for the global labor market. From an ILO news release and summary:

Despite signs that economic growth has resumed in some regions, the global employment situation is alarming and shows no sign of recovery in the near future, says the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The ILO’s “World of Work Report 2012: Better Jobs for a Better Economy” says that around 50 million jobs are still missing compared to the situation that existed before the crisis. It also warns that a new and more problematic phase of the global jobs crisis is emerging.

Four factors

The ILO identifies four key factors contributing to its conclusions:

First, this is due to the fact that many governments, especially in advanced economies, have shifted their priority to a combination of fiscal austerity and tough labour market reforms. . . .

Second, in advanced economies, many job seekers are demoralized and are losing skills, something which is affecting their chances of finding a new job. . . .

Third, in most advanced economies, many of the new jobs are precarious. Non-standard forms of employment are on the rise in 26 out of the 50 economies with available information. . . .

Fourth, the social climate has aggravated in many parts of the world and may entail further social unrest.

Job-friendly public policies

The report acknowledges that there are no easy solutions. However, it “argues that if a job-friendly policy-mix of taxation and increased expenditure in public investment and social benefits is put in place, approximately 2 million jobs could be created over the next year in advanced economies.”


The trends and underlying data marshalled by the ILO paint a very disturbing picture that largely mirrors what we’re seeing at the ground level. The Great Recession continues to define the world we live in, and the notion of a “jobless recovery” (an all-time oxymoron) has taken hold even in nations where other economic indicators are pointing up.

As I’ve said many times on this blog, it’s not as if we’ve run out of important, meaningful work that needs doing. Something is fundamentally wrong with economic structures that cannot match those needs with decent jobs at decent pay.


For the ILO’s detailed news release and report summary, go here.

For a complete copy of the ILO report (128 pp., pdf, free of charge), go here.

Dear Apple, please start taking global human rights seriously

photo credit: Wikipedia

Here’s a factory scene from China, as described by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza of the New York Times:

The explosion ripped through Building A5 on a Friday evening last May, an eruption of fire and noise that twisted metal pipes as if they were discarded straws.

When workers in the cafeteria ran outside, they saw black smoke pouring from shattered windows. It came from the area where employees polished thousands of iPad cases a day.

Two people were killed immediately, and over a dozen others hurt. As the injured were rushed into ambulances, one in particular stood out. His features had been smeared by the blast, scrubbed by heat and violence until a mat of red and black had replaced his mouth and nose.

Snazzy products, high profits, and workers at risk

Unfortunately, dangerous working conditions for workers who assemble Apple products are more common than any of us who buy, own, and love these computers and gadgets would like to think. As Duhigg and Barboza add in their report:

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers — as well as dozens of other American industries — have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.

However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.

Our responsibility

I own and use a MacBook laptop and an iPad regularly. I think they are excellent products. I own a small amount of Apple stock in my retirement portfolio. I’ve made some money off of it.

Folks like me (and perhaps some of you, dear readers) need to make our concerns known. I’m a latecomer to the Apple world, but I’ve always envied the “hip and cool” image of the company and its followers. Now, however, it’s terribly clear: There’s nothing hip or cool about exposing workers to life threatening and health impairing conditions on the job.

Brits say: Workplace stress, bullying, and violence are taking their toll

America certainly isn’t the only nation dealing with challenges to psychological health at work. Across the pond, workers in the United Kingdom face their own problems with stress, bullying, and violence on the job, as these recent studies indicate:

CIPD survey: Stress fueling long-term sick leave

Katie Allen reports for the Guardian newspaper (link here) on a survey conducted by Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and SimplyHealth indicating that fear of layoffs is contributing to significant levels of employee stress:

Worries about job losses have helped stress become the most common cause of long-term sick leave in Britain, according to a report that underlines the pressures on workers in a deteriorating labour market.

Stress has overtaken other reasons for long-term absence such as repetitive strain injury and medical conditions such as cancer. Workers blame workloads and management styles….

Cardiff & Plymouth study: High levels of violence and aggression at work

A study conducted by Cardiff and Plymouth universities (link here) shows that British workers face significant levels of violence and other forms of aggression on the job:

One million Britons experienced workplace violence in the last two years, while millions more were subjected to intimidation, humiliation and rudeness, new research has shown.

Surprisingly, managers and professionals in well-paid full-time jobs are among the groups most at risk.

…The research, by Cardiff’s School of Social Sciences and Plymouth Business School, is based on face-to-face interviews with nearly 4,000 employees who were representative of the British workforce. Key findings included:

4.9 per cent had suffered violence in the workplace – the equivalent of more than 1 million workers – with 3.8 per cent injured as a result

Almost 30 per cent complained of impossible deadlines and unmanageable workloads

Nearly a quarter had been shouted at or experienced someone losing their temper

13.3 per cent had been intimidated by somebody in the workplace

CMI study: Bad management costing £19 billion per year

The November issue of the Chartered Management Institute newsletter (link here) reports that “(i)neffective management could be costing UK businesses over £19 billion per year in lost working hours.” Bullying is among the severe problems noted in the CMI survey:

The study of 2000 employees across the UK reveals that three quarters (75 per cent) of workers waste almost two hours out of their working week due to inefficient managers. Worst management practices responsible for time lost include unclear communication (33 per cent); lack of support (33 per cent); micro-management (26 per cent); and lack of direction (25 per cent).

…Alarmingly, the research also highlights that 13% of those surveyed have witnessed managers exhibiting discriminatory behaviour towards employees based on gender, race, age or sexual orientation and almost one third (27%) have witnessed managers bullying or harassing their employees.

Our low “spirit level”: America ranks 27th out of 31 nations in global social justice study

Based on measures of social justice, America ranks 27th among 31 member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), according to “Social Justice in the OECD — How Do the Member States Compare?,” a report released last week by Bertelsmann Stiftung, a private German foundation.

Here are some of the low points for the U.S. in the report:

  • 28th in income inequality
  • 29th in poverty prevention
  • 28th in child poverty
  • 22nd in unemployment and long-term unemployment
  • 20th in access to education
  • 23rd in health care
  • 25th in debt levels

In no category does the U.S. place in the higher ranks.

Overall, the four nations ranked immediately above the U.S. are Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea, and Spain. Only Greece, Chile, Mexico, and Turkey rank below the U.S.

“We should be ashamed”

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow references the study and writes:

We have not taken care of the least among us. We have allowed a revolting level of income inequality to develop. We have watched as millions of our fellow countrymen have fallen into poverty. And we have done a poor job of educating our children and now threaten to leave them a country that is a shell of its former self. We should be ashamed.

The Times also prepared an excellent graphic that highlights selected measures in the report. The full report is only 50+ pages, with lots of easy-to-read charts and summaries.

America’s “spirit level”

In The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (rev. ed. 2010), British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett examined comparative economic and social data and found that social and health problems worsen as inequality grows.

In fact, overall wealth is less predictive than distribution of wealth in forecasting the well-being of a populace. In terms of public health, they found that while the poor are the biggest beneficiaries of greater equality, the wealthy make gains as well. Here’s a short YouTube video of Wilkinson and Pickett explaining their book:

The U.S. fares poorly in The Spirit Level as well, mirroring the findings of the OECD study.


What else is there to say? America, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Occupy movement goes global: 900 cities and counting

The social protest movement that started several weeks ago with Occupy Wall Street has gone global, as Esther Addley reports for Guardian newspaper (link here):

  • 60,000 protesters in Barcelona, Spain
  • 25,000 in Santiago, Chile
  • 5,000+ “massed outside the European Central Bank” in Frankfurt, Germany
  • 4,000 in London
  • 3,000 in Auckland, New Zealand

Addley adds:

The Occupy campaign may have hoped, at its launch, to inspire similar action elsewhere, but few can have foreseen that within four weeks, more than 900 cities around the world would host co-ordinated protests directly or loosely affiliated to the Occupy cause.

Testifying on the human costs: Occupy the Boardroom

As protests mount, others are finding ways to spread the message online. Joshua Holland, writing for AlterNet (link here) reports on Occupy the Boardroom, a project that allows members of the public to share personal stories of what the economic meltdown has done to them and their families. For example, here is what one woman from North Carolina wrote to fellow Tar Heel Erskine Bowles, co-chair of the President’s national debt commission:

Like you I’m from the Tar Heel state so I thought I’d tell you my story. A couple of years ago my father died waiting for a liver transplant. It was an ugly, horrible death and left me parentless while still in my 20s. My brother and I inherited the small ranch-style house my father worked his whole life to pay off. (Our mother died during our childhoods.) I wanted to take care of my father’s money so I invested it. Six months later I had lost over half of it when the crash happened. I lost half of my father’s life savings because of the corrupt practices of Wall Street. My father worked his whole life. He was the 11th child of a sharecropping family and was sent to the cotton fields before he was ten. He completed high school but there was no money for college so he went to work at blue-collar jobs which he used to support us his whole life.

When I think of the money I lost, I think of my father’s hands. I think of his broken, scarred hands that built a home and future for me. It wasn’t just money that Wall Street stole. Futures, trust, hard work and respect — those are the things Wall Street corruption has stolen from the American People, not just money. I don’t think everyone on Wall Street is corrupt, but the system is, and I want to do my part to correct it, even if it’s just writing a letter like this. I owe my father that. Mr. Bowles, I hope you do your part too. Because of your position, you are a powerful person in our society. So I ask you, how will you use your power? What will your legacy be?


Watch and listen to this catchy video and song above, “We Are the 99%,” posted on YouTube.

Related posts

Economics 101: Defining terms and saving capitalism from itself

From “punk-styled kids” to airline pilots, is Occupy Wall Street the start of something big?

Post-meltdown America: An economic recovery for the wealthy

Globalization and workers 101: A quick primer

Should workplace bullying be a criminal offense in the U.S.?

A recurring question within the workplace anti-bullying movement in the U.S. is whether workplace bullying should be a criminal offense. This discussion has been fueled by recent legal developments in Australia, where the state of Victoria has criminalized workplace bullying, as well as ongoing awareness that under French law, “moral harassment” can be a criminal offense.

I cannot speak with sufficient authority about whether the legal systems in other nations are capable of handling criminal claims for workplace bullying, but I do believe that making standard-brand workplace bullying a criminal offense in the U.S. would create significant challenges for targets seeking justice and seriously disrupt our workplaces.

This position is informed not only by a decade of research, advocacy, and public education about workplace bullying as a law professor, but also by my experiences as a former assistant attorney general for New York State enforcing workplace safety laws and as a former public defender arguing criminal appeals on behalf of indigent defendants in New York City.

Here are some of my specific concerns:

Overworked police and prosecutors offices

The idea that already overburdened police departments and prosecutors offices would be able to investigate a rush of complaints from workers claiming they were bullied is wholly unrealistic. The criminal justice system cannot handle what’s currently on its plate.

In addition, we shouldn’t expect police departments, labor departments, and prosecutors offices to create special units to handle workplace bullying complaints. At best, state or federal labor departments might be able to prosecute a small number of easy-to-prove, high visibility cases. Anyone who expects more should read up on the status of city, state, and federal law enforcement budgets.

No private cause of action

Those who favor criminal sanctions for workplace bullying should be aware that if law enforcement authorities don’t want to go forward with a prosecution, there is no further action on a case. If workplace bullying is made a criminal offense, those whose complaints do not lead to a prosecution will have no further recourse; one cannot pursue a criminal case solely as a private citizen.

No damages to the target, no punishment of organizations

In most cases, the criminal justice system does not provide compensation to victims; that’s what the civil justice system is designed to do. Therefore, even a successful prosecution of an individual bully will not provide damages to the target. (And try collecting from someone who is imprisoned, in any event!)

Also, because individuals, not institutions, are the subject of criminal prosecutions (as opposed to, say, employment claims that can be brought against employers), there will be no organizational accountability for bullying situations enabled by abusive or dysfunctional work environments.

Impact on workers and workplaces

This is a definitely an example of beware, you may get what you seek.

First, workers already are reluctant to file claims against their employers when they have valid claims recognized by the law. How many would be willing to press criminal charges by calling the police or some other government entity?

Second, how would the presence of police or criminal investigators showing up at an office in response to a complaint about bullying at work further fracture already damaged employment relationships? And would there be any disincentive for an underperforming, unhappy worker to “drop a dime” on a supervisor he doesn’t like?

Burden of proof

Some have criticized the Healthy Workplace Bill for creating too high a legal threshold for making a successful claim at trial, especially the requirements that targets prove the behaviors (1) were intended to harm them and (2) caused tangible mental or physical harm.

Well, that’s nothing compared to proving a criminal claim for workplace bullying, where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. Think the Casey Anthony acquittal. Think the O.J. Simpson acquittal.

It bears mentioning that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act does provide for short terms of imprisonment for willful violations of workplace safety codes that cause a worker’s death. However, despite many worker fatalities due to unsafe working conditions, this is one of the very least invoked provisions of the law. Criminal prosecutions under OSHA are a rarity.

Existing criminal law

Extreme cases of workplace bullying, especially those that involve physical harm, already may be violative of existing criminal laws for assault, battery, or false imprisonment. Various criminal wiretapping and surveillance laws may cover bullying that uses advanced technologies.


In sum, criminalizing workplace bullying in the U.S. sounds a lot better in theory than it would play out in reality.  Some targets, understandably angry about being subjected to this terrible form of abuse, imagine with great satisfaction their tormenters being hauled off to prison. However, in most cases of workplace bullying, this would be extremely unlikely to occur.


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