Escaping the net – can India avoid work-related suicides?

In one year, in one company alone, 18 Chinese workers attempted suicide at work. 14 succeeded, throwing themselves from the upper floors of office or factory buildings.

This number comes as no surprise to those familiar with the anti-suicide nets in infamous Chinese companies such as Foxconn. Long hours, mediocre pay and poor future prospects have been a recipe for work stress-induced suicide at businesses across the country.

While such figures remain alarmingly high, suicide accounts for a relatively small percentage of the total number of karōshi (overwork death) victims in China. Deaths from work stress-induced heart attacks and strokes are much higher.

Perhaps surprisingly, manual labourers have largely proved resilient to poor work conditions and strenuous physical demands. It’s the so-called “mental labour” jobs, such as those in the IT and media businesses, that have been the primary contributor to dangerously high levels of work-related stress.

These kinds of jobs can be found at all socioeconomic levels, with a slightly disproportionate representation by the middle class. IT employees in China have shown some of the highest levels of work-related stress with 98.8 percent reporting the negative influence of their job on personal health.

Long-term exposure to work stress leads to obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, which in turn can cause heart disease and stroke – the primary killer of karōshi victims in China.

For the scores of young people in China’s modern metropolises regularly working copious amounts of (usually unpaid) overtime, this information is already old news. Competition for comfortable and well-paid positions in Shanghai or Beijing is notoriously fierce. Those without proper guanxi, or social connections, often never reap the benefits of their death-defying hard work.

And is India much better off?

Hard data is scarce. One report vaguely states that 46% of all Indian office employees suffer from stress. Perhaps a better indicator comes from Expedia’s 2016 global “Vacation Deprivation” report, which said over 70% of Indians canceled or postponed vacation plans because of work. In fact, all you have to do is look around a busy office and you will see the signs of stress. And reducing it is the critical thing.

One possible solution is to introduce fun to the workplace. In fact, some large IT companies have introduced designations like Chief Fun Officer – a senior HR position with the responsibility of lightening the work atmosphere.

Scientific research has proven that introducing fun elements in office – and thereby reducing stress – significantly enhances productivity. It’s a win-win situation for enlightened companies – regular and planned fun sessions helps de-stress overworked employees, retains talent and enhances the employer brand.

With growing awareness of stress reduction techniques, perhaps India can escape the net.