Suicide epidemic illuminates an anxiety crisis in the French workplace

Something is amiss in the land of leisurely lunches and six-week-plus paid vacations. The French, known more for their joie de vivre than workaholism, are in a crisis after a series of job-related suicides at several top corporations -- including a shocking 25 deaths at France Télécom (FTE), Europe's largest broadband Internet provider, since February 2008.

The suicide spree -- the latest victim, on Saturday, was an employee at defense contractor Thales -- has raised concerns about le stress at the workplace. In a country where job security has been reliable, a rash of job losses, relocations, and outsourcings has taken its toll.
Anxiety attack

"We have lost the sense of what a company, in the true sense of the word, really is," says Sébastien Crozier, a union representative for France Télécom employees. "We are in a moral crisis. Things are so bad that when workers are asked to relocate, they ask, 'What's the use?'"

Concerned about the mounting problem, France's ministry of labor announced an emergency plan this month that would require all companies with more than 1,000 employees to introduce antistress measures by February 10. France is considering to publicly commend companies that are dealing with job anxiety -- and shame those doing a bad job of that, according to Le Figaro.

France Télécom, which has struggled since 1997 to transform itself from a state-run landline provider into a privatized leader in mobile and Internet offerings, has gone through a series of restructurings in recent years. Between 2006 and 2008, the group, which posted €53.5 billion ($79.6 billion) in revenue last year, eliminated 22,000 jobs, leaving it with a workforce of about 100,000.

The latest suicide at France Télécom was on Oct. 15, but another call-center worker attempted suicide on Tuesday. The 32-year-old employee, who had overdosed on medication on the job, was rescued by colleagues, the Associated Press reports.

Relocation and retraining

Many blame the suicides and attempts on forced relocations and retraining for employees who have done one job for decades. Technicians who once repaired phone lines now work in customer-service centers, answering calls about the company's Orange mobile and Internet brand offerings.

"What do we do with a government worker who has been doing the same job for many years, and all of a sudden, we need them to do something else?'" says André Dupuis, a retired executive from French media company Thomson (TMS). "When you're 20 or 30 years old, you can change your job pretty easily. When you're 40 or 50, it's much harder."

Union representative Crozier says much of the stress at France Télécom comes from a new regime that he says prioritizes short-term profit over long-term sustainability. That work-stress situation, he says, may baffle Americans accustomed to high-pressure workplaces and frequent job changes.

"Anglo-Saxon cultures and Latin cultures have different relationships with their jobs," he says. "In Anglo-Saxon culture as we see it, one of the primary motivations in work is the money you make. In France, that hasn't been the case. Work is more based on the social function and status that it provides."

What he's saying, in short, is that it's easier for Americans to change jobs or move to different cities as long as they're still getting a paycheck. But in France, involuntary dislocations can disrupt a worker's self-identity.

Companies in crisis

Along with France Télécom and Thales, French car giants Renault and Peugeot have also experienced numerous employee suicides. Authorities at Peugeot's Sport division are examining whether an employee suicide last Friday was connected to workplace pressure, according to Le Nouvel Observateur.

Some media observers say the crisis is overblown -- that the suicide rate at France Télécom is no higher than the national average of 26.4 men and 9.2 women per every 100,000, according to the World Health Organization. The U.S. suicide rate is 17.6 men and 4.1 women per 100,000.

But the France Télécom rate is higher than the norm, Crozier says, because the victims are often executives -- an unusual category in France's suicide statistics. "In the letters they leave, we keep on seeing, 'It's the company,'" Crozier says. "We have never seen this on this scale."

Taking steps

France Télécom this month has taken a series of measures to soothe anxious workers, replacing its deputy chief executive in c charge of French operations; establishing a freeze on restructuring until the end of December; and taking the equivalent of 1,000 outsourced jobs back in-house. "Now more than ever, we have to accelerate the measures" to get out of this "infernal spiral," CEO Didier Lombard told Le Télégramme.

Although former Thomson executive Dupuis says globalization is inevitable, many of the workplace problems that companies are experiencing may come from the workforce challenges that arise when integrating into the global economy. "It creates a social drama," says Dupuis. As far as France is concerned, this is one drama the country hopes will end quickly.

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