Adam Sage has been following the suicides that have occurred in France Telecome for some time. On 23 September 2009 in the TimesOnline (a week later in The Australian newspaper??), Sage provides a useful summary and cogitation on the “cluster”.
But although this number of suicides in one company should be alarming, it is not really a cluster as the suicide rate for Telecome’s employees was only slightly above the national average of 14.7 per 100,000 people. Sage reports that France is a country with a high comparative suicide rate. The relevance to SafetyAtWorkBlog is that Sage goes on to identify work-related factors that contribute to suicides.
He quotes a sociology professor who says the French “define themselves by their professions”. The risk with this basis for identity is always when the demand for the profession declines, one needs to redefine and this is not easy.
Sage finds a psychoanalyst who says that his patients feel isolated at work and have no support mechanisms.
A suicide prevention expert says that often a problem at home is the suicide trigger with someone who is feeling stressed at work.
Sage provides a potted history of the privatisation of France Telecome and speaks to a current employee bemoans the loss of camaraderie.
What is surprising about this article is that it seems France, and particularly France Telecome, are way behind other Western nations in having control measures in place for employee support programs and change management.
It is not as if France is ignorant of workplace stress issues or that workplace suicides have only occurred at France Telecome. A major reason for its experiment with the 35-hour week was to
“…to take advantage of improvements in productivity of modern society to give workers some more personal time to enhance quality of life.”
In January 2008 (well before the current financial crises), the Institute for Economic and Social Research published “Workplace suicides highlight issue of rising stress levels at work “. After some suicides at Renault and Peugeot it assessed the issues, acknowledged the trade union assertion that
“…excessive isolation of workers due to high workloads and fierce competition leads to a malaise in companies and thus call for a reflection on choices of work organisation.”
The article also reported
“The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) welcomed the ‘recognition of psychological factors being the cause of an occupational accident’ as it ‘opens the way to taking into account a form of suffering and malaise that, until now, has been minimised by companies’.”
A longer-lasting improvement will only come if this recognition is built on by all social structures in France. Perhaps it should look across the channel at how the Health & Safety Executive and the corporate sector have responded to the report by Dame Carol Black – “Working for Health” – calling for an integrated approach to health management involving work, public health, health promotion and other elements of social capital.
France Telecome held an extraordinary Board meeting on 15 September concerning its suicide rate. It made the following commitments:
- “The national health, safety and working conditions committee (CNSHSCT) will be meeting on Thursday next week in the presence of Jean-Denis Combrexelle, the Ministry’s Director General for Employment.
- To stop the phenomenon from spreading, it has been decided to immediately put in place a freephone number to promote dialogue. Psychologists from outside the company will be available to listen to and talk with any employees who may be having difficulties.
- The first meeting for the negotiations on stress will be taking place on Friday September 18. On this occasion, the employee representatives will appoint an external consultancy to conduct an audit of the situation within France Telecom.
- These negotiations will focus on the prevention of stress and psychosocial risks in the event of geographical or professional mobility among staff. To address this issue, a forward-looking employment and skills management (GPEC) system will be set-up with a view to offering employees and their direct managers visibility over their professional development and support.”
Didier Lombard, France Telecom’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, has set a tight timeframe for improvement. On 15 September 2009 Lombard said
“December’s France Telecom will not be the France Telecom of today.”
UPDATE 30 SEPTEMBER 2009
Agence France Presse has reported a 24th suicide associated with France Telecom. According to the report the 51-year-old male jumped to his death from an overpass onto a busy highway. His suicide note to his wife expressly referred to the work environment as a reason for his action.