by Meridith Levinson

Work-Related Suicide: Not Just France Telecom’s Tragedy

Oct 14, 2009

At France Telecom, stress related to a radical restructuring is driving some workers to the depths of despair.

The tragedy at France Télécom has taken the business world by a sad, surprised storm. Since February, 2008, 24 employees have committed suicide and 13 others have attempted to take their lives due to unbearable stress at work, according to various media reports. This week that figure rose to 14 suicide attempts: Just today French firemen prevented a 54-year-old France Télécom worker from hanging himself.

France Télécom has been undergoing a significant restructuring as the formerly state-owned company moves toward privatization and battles the global economic recession. The German daily Spiegel Online reports via BusinessWeek Online:

Even though the state [France] still owns a majority share in the business, the shift toward privatization has brought with it a tough new management style concerned primarily with profit and productivity, according to unions and works committees. “There is no humanity anymore, no neighborliness. Only business counts,” Patrice Diochet, the CFTC union’s national secretary, said.

Layoffs and staff reassignments associated with the restructuring have exacerbated employees’ stress and anxiety, writes Spiegel Online. The company, which employs 100,000 people, is cutting 40,000 jobs and has already transferred many employees to different functions (e.g. technicians moving into customer service and sales people moving into call center work), often without adequate training, according to the German report.

The suicides and attempted suicides at France Télécom are shocking and heart-breaking. The changes the company is undergoing must represent a dramatic paradigm shift for employees, whose jobs had been largely secure when the company was entirely state-owned. Now they have to compete for jobs. Now they have more work. Now they’re performance really matters.

France Télécom employees are facing a tremendous amount of change and uncertainty. I understand how such an environment would create unbearable levels of stress and anxiety, but I can’t imagine the psychology that would drive someone to end his or her life over a job. That is the true tragedy.

Nevertheless, it’s sad that a corporation’s drive for profits and efficiency has rendered so many employees so miserable that they want to end their lives. One suicide is enough. It’s also sad that these employees feel that taking their lives is their only escape from their misery, stress and anxiety.

In the U.S., we’re used to competition, working nights and weekends, two weeks of vacation per year, layoffs, forced ranking, pay-for-performance systems and other hallmarks of our capitalist, free market economy. I don’t mean to imply that the French are soft; I happen to admire many of their labor practices. And after all, these business practices certainly stress out Americans. The difference, I think, is that we’re used to it. We know what’s coming. And we know how to prepare ourselves. We also have more employment options than the French, who historically have had higher rates of unemployment than the U.S.

What do you think of the suicides at France Telecom? I welcome your thoughts.