Why France Telecom employees are killing themselves

PARIS, France — The men and women who committed suicide while employed by communications giant France Telecom sent a clear message in the letters they left behind: They unequivocally blame the company for their demise. The deaths have provoked outrage over the firm’s management practices and have led to the resignation of the company’s deputy CEO.

In a note to his wife and children, a 51-year-old father of two said it was “the climate” at the call center where he worked that drove him to take a fatal jump from a highway overpass. He became the latest and the 24th employee since February 2008 to end his life. His death prompted the company to rescind a policy of systematically moving staff to new posts every three years.

One worker this summer wrote about the company’s “lack of training” and “management by terror” in his note, stating his inability to further cope with the job as the reason for ending his life. An email message sent by a 32-year-old woman to her father before she jumped from a fifth-floor window at work said she was committing suicide because she didn’t want to work with a new boss. She reportedly had been undergoing treatment for depression for the last five years.

“I can't accept the new reorganization in my department. I'm getting a new boss and I'd rather die,” said the message addressed to her father in September and later published by the magazine Paris Match. “I'm leaving my handbag with my mobiles and keys in the office, but I'll take my donor card with me, you never know.”

Workplace suicides are not without precedent in France as they have been known to occur for the last dozen or so years, said Christophe Dejours, a psychiatrist and occupational health expert with 30 years of experience who has studied the phenomenon. Automakers Peugeot and Renault experienced a similar period of employee deaths blamed on job stress a few years ago. But Dejours said what he has noted is a progression toward a more violent reaction to work-related pressures.

“Suicides and violence are appearing more than in the past” as a form of expression of how the relationship to work is changing, he said, also citing labor demonstrations that become violent as further proof.

Just this Tuesday, as the company works on implementing better social policies and repairing the damage to its reputation, a 50-year-old employee showed up to work with a rifle to settle a dispute with his manager. The man was disarmed and no one was hurt in the incident Tuesday in northwestern France, according to Le Parisien, citing union sources and the firm’s management.

A labor union official said the man, who is a well-regarded worker, was under a lot of stress and the gun was not loaded. A France Telecom spokesman said the man has apologized and the company will not be filing charges. The man was placed on leave until Oct. 18.

A key factor in the deterioration of the working conditions at France Telecom, Dejours said, was the introduction of individual, performance-based evaluations as part of the company’s modus operandi following its restructuring. The government-owned monopoly became a predominately private-owned company in 2004 and has had to cut costs while remaining competitive.

France Telecom, which has about 100,000 employees, has shed about 22,000 jobs in two years, leaving those who remain to pick up the slack. Employees have cited “moral harassment” as one tactic used to pressure workers who are unable to adapt to quit. Job descriptions change at a frenetic pace and workers have complained of being constantly supervised. Employees are working more and more, giving more of themselves and are not seeing recognition for their efforts, said Dejours, the psychiatrist. A letter from the firm’s chief executive, Didier Lombard, to shareholders in April said the company added 12 million new customers in 2008, bringing the total number to 182 million worldwide. The letter said that the company had met all of its objectives for the year confirming that it was “equipped to withstand the impact of a very unstable environment.”

But at what price? 

“When we measure performance, we don’t measure the work,” Dejours said. “We measure results."

Furthermore, an atmosphere where people formerly worked in teams and relied on each other for support has become an isolating place where people have had to adopt an attitude of “every man for himself,” a shift that can lead to fear, mistrust and backstabbing among employees. 

“Now, what you have is more competition among workers,” Dejours said. “When an evaluation is linked to sanctions, whether positive or negative, this leads very quickly to people turning on each other.” 

Respect and all forms of solidarity are destroyed, Dejours said, and everyone is left alone to confront the pressures, big and small. When a person feels harassed at work, he is less likely to confide in colleagues or seek help. “It is a kind of great loneliness that settles in the workplace," he said.

Labor union representatives have called for two days of strikes this week and, along with several Socialist party members, for Lombard to resign. Instead, he accepted the resignation Monday of his deputy, Louis-Pierre Wenes, credited with being the architect of the changes that led to the stress in the first place. Stephane Richard, previously an aide to the finance minister, Christine Lagarde, was named as Wenes’ replacement, according to a brief company statement. The move was called a step in the right direction by the some and symbolic by others.

Lombard, who met with Lagarde last week and has the government’s full support, has promised to freeze job transfers, review personnel policies and offer more counseling to employees. He seemed to have learned from an earlier misstep of calling the rash of suicides a “fad” and distancing the company from any responsibility.

Dejours said it was possible for the company to change the work climate and prevent more tragedies by understanding why employees were taking their own lives and adopting changes instead of simply encouraging people to “take deep breaths” to relieve stress. Instead of sweeping the matter under rug, the company would benefit from frank discussions with those left behind and a recognition that they may be more fragile, especially as suicide becomes part of the banality of everyday work life or is seen something that could happen to anyone.

“After a series of suicides, we can’t just remove the corpse and do nothing,” he said.