Wave of employee suicides sweep France Télécom

Since 2009, the telecommunications group France Télécom-Orange is facing a wave of employee suicides, which is being widely reported in the media. So far, corporate managements are generally delaying embarking on negotiations with trade unions on psychosocial risks at work following the signature of the national multi-industry agreement on stress at work in 2008. Nonetheless, sensitivity of public opinion regarding this issue has been confirmed.

On 30 August 2009, a 52 year-old technician at the France Télécom Group committed suicide at the workplace. He was the sixth company employee taking his own life since July and the twenty third employee of France Télécom to do so in 2009. Two further individuals took their own lives in the following two months of September and October. On 1 December, the group’s management announced to have reported 32 cases of suicide since the beginning of 2008 to the Labour Inspectorate (Inspection du travail). Meanwhile, a new worrying series of suicides has affected the France Télécom Group in January and February 2010.

Not all of the group’s employees who committed suicide have left a message explaining the reasons for their action. The trade unions, however, see their action as evidence of suffering experienced by many staff members at France Télécom. They consider that this situation is linked to the company’s management style.

Since the summer and autumn of 2009, the debate has challenged the reaction of the company’s management, who for a long time seemed to underestimate the phenomenon and responded in too cold a way. France Télécom’s Chair and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Didier Lombard spoke tactlessly of a ‘suicide fashion’.

Stress-based management held responsible

The pressure exerted on employees at France Télécom has been denounced as ‘stress-based management’. In recent years, the group has undergone a series of rapid changes due to technological developments; for instance, information and communication technologies (ICT), including the advance in broadband transmission, have evolved in record times and imposed a major redeployment and retraining of the group’s employees. In addition, management implemented a new obligation to mobility policy, which sets out that workers should frequently change both their employment position and location. A plan, entitled ‘Time to move’, explicitly aimed to organise permanent mobility among the company’s workforce. The ‘Time to move’ plan was associated with a plan for 22,000 voluntary departures, given that the public company was not authorised to make its staff with civil service status redundant. Regarding this reorganisation plan, undesired mobility was suspected to serve as a means to meet the company’s objective for reducing its workforce, by pushing out in particular those with civil service status.

For several years already, there has been increasing malaise among workers employed by the group. Some occupational health officers have even resigned since they were unable to encourage management to react to the occurrence of depression and multiple suicides among the group’s workforce. Labour inspectors have also tried to warn the group’s management about the psychosocial risks incurred by staff with reports that recommended suspending reorganisations.

Measures taken by company

After much delay and pressure from the French government, the company finally adopted measures to tackle the problem with the aim of easing the situation. The government in fact also hastened the arrival of a new deputy director at France Télécom, Stéphane Richard, who is due to take over the function of CEO on 1 March 2010.

In the autumn of 2009, the French consultancy Technologia was mandated to carry out an anonymous questionnaire among the group’s employees in France on their working conditions. This is the same consultancy that intervened in the French automobile manufacturer Renault when it experienced a similar episode of suicides at the workplace in 2006 and 2007 (FR0711039I). France Telecom’s management has also suspended the principle of mobility for several months. Collective bargaining on the prevention of psychosocial risks has begun, within the framework of the implementation of the multi-industry agreement on stress at work (FR0807029I). The latter transposes the European framework agreement on work-related stress (77Kb PDF) that the EU-level social partners signed in 2004.

Management methods publicly challenged

Two years after the episode at Renault and in a context where the economic and financial crisis has already casted doubt on the virtues of liberalisation and modern management methods, the great media attention to this phenomenon provided an opportunity for publicly challenging management methods to which employees have been subjected for several years already. In addition, there was another suicide at Renault in October 2009 and also in other companies, including the Employment Centre (Pôle emploi). The latter is a new body resulting from merging, at a time when unemployment figures shot up, jobseekers’ benefits offices with the public job placement centres into a single operator (FR0804079I).

Social partner reaction

Within the company, trade unions had long been trying to sound the alarm in relation to the psychosocial risks faced by staff at France Télécom. They commissioned reports to draw attention to this issue and its underlying reasons. In 2007, two of the trade unions present in France Télécom – namely, the Independent Union – Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (Union syndicale – Solidaires, Unitaires, Démocratiques, SUD) and the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff – General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l’encadrement – Confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC) – launched together a monitoring centre on stress and unwanted mobility (Observatoire du Stress et des Mobilités Forcées). The aim of the centre was to collect information on how management policies caused mental distress in the company and to alert the media to the consequences of such policies on workers’ mental health. However, resisting those among the politically active staff who called for the CEO’s resignation, unanimity was strong enough for the trade unions to demand the resignation of the former deputy chief executive, Louis-Pierre Wernès, who was considered to be the main person responsible for the situation, without going as far as to challenge the CEO himself. In addition to bargaining on psychosocial risks, the trade unions demand that the group puts an end to its mobility policy. However, CFE-CGC withdrew from the negotiations, since the confederation considered that they did not tackle the real problem of forced mobility. CFE-CGC demands a company plan that gives meaning to the work that members of staff do.

The employers remained discreet on the subject. France Télécom’s corporate Human Reources (HR) Director, Didier Barberot, initially contested a direct link between the suicides of several staff members and the prevailing employment and working conditions in the group. However, the group’s CEO, Mr Lombard, then stated: ‘I cannot accept that some of our employees come to work with stress. This is not the company I want.’ The General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Confédération générale des petites et moyennes entreprises, CGPME) wished to make it clear to public opinion that it should not put together small and big companies, emphasising that small companies have the virtue of using more humane management methods.

Pascal Ughetto, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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