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In their suicide notes, some of the 24 victims since February 2008 blame the workplace climate.
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.