A dramatic suicide threat puts the spotlight on the deeply disturbed Indian employee

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A woman’s recent attempt to threaten her employers with suicide has shone the spotlight on extreme measures some employees in India Inc resort to.

On May 24, the private consultancy employee stood on the ledge of her five-storey office building’s terrace in Gurugram after her boss tried to fire her. Despite her colleagues trying to console her and the police arriving at the scene, she refused to step down, waiting for the company administration to change their decision about dismissing her.

This woman’s threat wasn’t a rarity.

In 2008, around 20 groundsmen at Kolkata’s famous Eden Gardens stadium threatened to commit suicide over their demand for better salaries. In May 2018, around 150 workers at Bengaluru-based Hanuman Transport Company said they would kill themselves fearing loss of livelihood if the firm sold out to other companies. In February this year, a Kerala State Road Transport Corporation employee climbed a tree and threatened to kill herself following mass layoffs at the government firm.

There have also been instances of extortion and kidnappings under similar circumstances.

Such threats work sometimes. For example, the Gurugram woman was reportedly reinstated. However, high drama and compromise can’t be a regular affair, human resources (HR) experts say.

Instead, employers should zero in on the triggers. “Not doing well in career leads them to think they are not valued, which can ultimately force them to take harsh steps, whether personal or towards the organisation,” a spokesperson from corporate skills training company Centum Learning told Quartz.

Once the main issue is found, responses can be tailored. These issues can range from job security to office politics.

Finding the cause

A 2016 study of over 6,000 employees across India found that one in two Indian employees suffer from anxiety and depression.

In mid-2017, a 25-year-old IT employee in Bengaluru took his own life. His suicide note showed he was worried about his career. Indeed, India’s Silicon Valley has come to be India’s suicide capital, owing mostly to stress.

Often, these incidents occur when employees fail to manage work-expectations and productivity. Poor corporate training often hampers performance, the Centum Learning spokesperson said.

There could be other factors, too, both explicit or implicit:

  1. Discrimination often leads to altercations. Minorities like women, LGBTQ employees, or the disabled are often the worst hit, experts said. This “may be linked with workplace discrimination, unfair labour practices, a lack of friendly policies and managerial awareness,” said Munira Loliwala, business head of engineering, manufacturing, and process industries at recruiting firm TeamLease Services. This is bad news for the companies since diversity leads to revenue growth and profitability.
  2. Sexual harassment is another plague. Multiple victims often go unreported and those who do file complaints endure months of trauma, often resorting to extreme steps. Sometimes, in such cases, it is the accused who take drastic measures like committing suicide. In May this year, the supreme court quashed a case in which the wife of a deceased man blamed his company for his death.
  3. Office politics can be a trigger, too, experts say. It can make the work culture toxic. Gossip is directly related to loss of productivity, wastage of time, falling morale, erosion of trust, and attrition, according to the Society of Human Resource Managers (SHRM). It fuels anxiety, besides hurting people and their reputations. “In the age of information technology, (rumours) can spread very fast, disturbing the tranquility and healthy work culture,” said Loliwala.

Handling these issues can be daunting.

Support systems

Companies need to come up with policies to curb malicious behavior, multiple HR experts said. This could range from warning gossip-mongers and firing known harassers to increasing diversity at the workplace.

Some of India’s largest firms fare abysmally when it comes to CEOs’ approval ratings among staff, accounting infractions, and scandals, and the ratio of women on the governing board. Hiring and promoting women, for instance, can help as attrition rates are often lower among women than for men. Having a more flat organisation with less hierarchy and open door policy, among other things, also help improve the office environment.

In any case, the problem can extend beyond the office, too.

Aggravating issues like depression and anxiety are two key problems: the stigma attached to these conditions and a lack of support system. There are just 3,800 psychiatrists, 898 clinical psychologists, and 1,500 psychiatric nurses to look after a country of 1.3 billion people.

view Quartz
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