China Fortune– Appropriate Treatment of Depression Patients
Category: IBM and Prejudice towards Depression
Dr. Ling Long, psychologist, focus on charitable activity, working as both psychologist and authoring mental health related reports in media
Recently, two situations related to IBM have commanded the attention of the public; one being the 2011 celebration of 40,000 of IBM’s employees in an event commemorating its centennial; the other being of the same day, at seven in the evening, the attempted suicide of former IBM employee, Yipeng Yuan, in the Huangpu River after being terminated from his position due to his depression diagnosis – yet another in a series in five years.
According to the media’s description, the worker who began his career in IBM in 2006 as a hardware programmer was diagnosed with clinical depression after one year of working for the company, and took a two month break as a result to look after his health. The Shanghai Mental Health Center gave the suggestion of seeking extraneous treatment outside of work hours and, acting on this, Yuan applied for his return to his position but was rejected by IBM and was also asked to resign. As a result, in January of 2008, Yuan relapsed into a depressive episode and attempted suicide.
After, both parties entered into a civil battle, relentlessly volleying the resolution back and forth. IBM offered Yuan the option of “working from home” under a labour contract with the company or the option of recompensation. Their sole restriction is in denying Yuan from working in the office building itself. With the second suicide attempt, IBM was pushed into the public’s eye as the object of criticism and scandals.
No suicide attempts had deterred Yuan from the time of his diagnosis to his termination from the company, even when he continued working as usual. However, all three attempts had occurred after he was denied his place in IBM and can only be said to be a tragedy.
These recent years, with the fast development of Chinese society and competition, a peak has been reached in the population demographic of mental illness in the workplace. In the last two years, a letter circulated on the Internet addressed to a worker with depression from the CEO of Huawei, Zhengfei Ren. In this letter, he addressed the accumulating number of depression cases in the company and the growing events of self-harm and suicide. In my clinic, I frequently hear stories of mental breakdowns after the patients involved are fired from their work. Yuan is not the first or only case; however he is the only one to use extreme measures to expose the cruelty of employers’ attitudes towards depression to the public.
Why is IBM so quick to disassociate themselves from the mention of depression? I am guessing there are two reasons for this. The first would be the lack of sufficient information and understanding of depression. “Serious” depression patients would exhibit evidence of self-harm, suicidal tendencies and could be driven to suicide. The consequences of these actions could cause psychological trauma in the workplace and for the patient’s fellow colleagues. Acting upon these assumptions, employers would often shy away from cases of depression in their employees, worried that they would “cause trouble and harm others”.
The second reason: in the past couple of years, the Huawei Company and the Fushikan Company have encountered thirteen suicides within their workforce, so much so that the media have already developed an automatic response to the term “employee suicide”. For example, even Louis Vuitton’s singular suicide at their China-based factory evoked mass media response. This amount of attention can result in two different consequences: on one hand, public awareness may be raised on the issue so that companies would become more conscientious toward their employees’ mental health. On the other hand, the over-emphasis of these reports may heighten the probability of prejudice towards employees by the companies and the pressure enforced on them as companies become further stressed by the possibility of bad press.
Those working in the field of psychology understand the conflict faced by the enterprise in these two opposing outcomes. In recent years, the EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) system has developed rapidly in China, which reflects a deepening recognition of the importance of a worker’s mental well-being. However, many practicing psychiatrists in relation to EAP complain of industry’s impatient approach to handling the problem of depression in the workplace. In order to meet EAP’s requirements, a maximum would be set on the number of treatments made available to the worker from the company, the expectation being that by the concluding treatment, the worker would have recovered completely. If the employee has not reached this goal, then they would be labeled as “high-risk personnel” and stand the possibility of termination. These actions completely go against the purpose of the EAP, which is to protect worker interests. Companies such as IBM who boast of their own excellence in responsibility are thus worried about cases such as Yuan’s; suicide, lawsuits, anything which may call into question the integrity of the company. So “The Blue Giant” would donate millions to charitable acts but would refuse the request of a depression patient to return to his former post.
Not to point fingers at industry in general, IBM perhaps does not understand that anxiety disorder and depression, etc., are all common mental disorders and there is a clear divide between these and serious untreatable mental illnesses. As long as the treatment is complete and effective, then these common disorders will dissipate. However, self-harm and acting out against others are special occurrences, and would not occur during a specialist-dictated recovery stage.
Keeping in touch with society is the most effective treatment for a depression patient. Companies can reduce the worker’s responsibilities but keep them in a position which frequently interacts with the public, at the same time requesting them to seek appropriate treatment. For companies with EAP and are connected to a psychiatric clinic, this small probability of risk could be easily handled. In comparison to the large sum required of industry’s business goals, these tiny acts of prevention and treatment do not subtract significantly from the company’s expenditure.
Contrarily, if employees are forcefully terminated, then not only will it worsen symptoms and increase risks for self-harm and relapse, but will also tarnish the company’s name in society and subject them to public criticism of not being responsible for their workers. After all, in comparison with all other social groups, the workers are the true backbone of industry. Treating an employee with kindness is, for an industry, the most basic responsibility.