France Telecom Suicides: French Government Steps In to Stop Staff Deaths

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More than 20 staff at France Telecom have killed themselves in the last 18 months, with some leaving notes blaming work conditions. At first, the company's management appeared unconcerned. But now the French government is stepping in to find out what is really going wrong.

France Telecom employees gather on Sept. 10, 2009, in memory of one of their colleagues who committed suicide last July in Marseille. Zoom
AFP

France Telecom employees gather on Sept. 10, 2009, in memory of one of their colleagues who committed suicide last July in Marseille.

They ended their lives with sleeping pills, hanged themselves or jumped out of the office windows. The most recent suicide was Stephanie, a 32-year-old who killed herself on Sept. 14 by leaping out of a fourth-floor window in northwestern Paris. Stephanie was the 23rd France Telecom worker to commit suicide since February 2008. Not all have been successful: The man who stabbed himself in the stomach at a meeting last Wednesday after hearing his job was at risk, for example, is now in stable condition at a hospital.

Some of the other suicides left notes blaming work conditions. One 52-year-old employee who killed himself in July left a note that blamed "overwork" and "management by terror." "I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom," he wrote. "That's the only reason."

Over the past 18 months, the suicide rate at the French company, which is quarter owned by the French state and where two-thirds of employees are classified as civil servants, has become a political issue. External pressure on the company is such that French Labor Minister Xavier Darcos called the head of France Telecom Didier Lombard in for a meeting. "The fact that these terrible things keep happening in one company obliges the government to be more watchful," Darcos said.

And Laurence Parisot, the head of the French employer's union (MEDEF) has also expressed her condolences and helplessness in the face of the suicides, saying, "We have to do everything we can so that these things do not develop further."

Closures, Redundancies, Unemployment Cause 'Econocide'

In the face of rising unemployment, business closures and a massive wave of layoffs, the French administration is concerned that the recurring suicides could be seen as evidence that their economic stimulus programs are not working. Politicians and chief executives are proposing a whole row of measures to help ease any stress, tension or conflict that the approximately 100,000 workers at France Telecom may be feeling.

Among the guarantees is a promise that there will be no further transfers until the end of October. More physicians specialized in occupational medicine will be hired, as will more human relations staff. And there will be help stations where those employees in need of psychological assistance can go. There will be an anonymous advice helpline for distressed employees. The direction the French government wants the telecommunications giant to go in is clear. France Telecom must be as efficient on the social level as it is on the technological one, the labor minister has said.

Whether any of these measures will have an effect remains to be seen. After all, a lot of the apparent causes for these staff suicides have to with structural changes at the business. Since the company, once part of the French post office, went public in 1997, it has been turned into a leaner, meaner France Telecom -- along with its mobile telephone subsidiary, Orange. Even though the state 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.

Head of Personnel: 'I Have Seen Worse'

It is not only the fact that 40,000 jobs are being axed. Complaints have been made about arbitrary transfers. Examples include technicians being transferred to customer service without enough training for the job, or unproductive salespeople pushed into call center work. The results have been pressure, anxiety and insecurity among staff members -- so much so, in fact, that in 2007 France Telecom had already established an oversight committee to collect complaints from stressed-out employees.

Despite all of this, until relatively recently the company's chiefs have not seemed particularly disturbed by the suicides. "It's not that dramatic, I have seen worse," the satirical French weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné quoted the head of France Telecom's human relations, Oliver Barberot, as saying. "The numbers of suicides are not even going up. In 2000 there were 28 and in 2002 there were 29."

Lombard also seems to consider the suicides more of a public relations issue than anything else. He also said that all of the reports in the media, in newspapers and on television, were part of the problem. "These are dramas -- and they happen," said Lombard, who was unhappy that the suicides were being discussed so much in public. He also warned of the contagious nature of suicide. "The more you talk about this kind of thing, the more you put it into the heads of anyone who is psychologically instable."

However, these sorts of unsympathetic explanations seem to have made things worse. The solution to the problem could well lie in Lombard's hands. For the next three months, the heads of the company will be traveling around France to investigate why their workers are so unhappy. And Lombard has also talked about how he would like to end the suicides. He has promised better training for those in positions of authority. "We have already trained them according to scientific methods of successful management. But maybe this was not enough," Lombard said. "Our business leaders are of an outstanding quality but we will be adding some extra training in order to take care of any small weaknesses there might be."

Sarkozy Wants To Measure Happiness Rather Than Profits

Probably also worth noting are France's statistics on suicide. In France, in 2007, the average number of suicides per 100,000 inhabitants was 16.3. French men are three times more likely than French women to kill themselves and the age group in which the most French men kill themselves is between 45 and 49. In this age group the average deaths per 100,000 rises to 41.6. The 24 suicides at France Telecom occurred over a year and a half, so in actual fact the number of deaths from these causes within a workforce of 100,000 is about what one might expect, statistically speaking.

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said this week that France, famous for its short working week and social benefits, would be taking happiness and well-being into account in the way the nation measured its economic progress. "A great revolution is waiting for us," said Sarkozy, who hopes to convince other nations at the G-20 summit next week to forgo the "cult" of the market. "For years, people said that finance was a formidable creator of wealth, only to discover one day that it accumulated so many risks that the world almost plunged into chaos."

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