Workplace suicides highlight issue of rising stress levels at work

Within a few months, several workers in France have taken their own lives – almost all of them in the workplace. This may indicate deteriorating working conditions, in particular increasing stress levels among and growing pressure on workers. Trade unions claim 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.

Worrying series of workers’ suicides

In October 2006, at Renault’s state-of-the-art Technocentre in Guyancourt in the Île-de-France region where teams design the manufacturer’s new cars, a 39-year old engineer jumped out of a window, taking his own life. Two of his colleagues at the same site repeated this action within a period of three months. In February 2007, in one of Peugeot’s car manufacturing plants, a maintenance worker committed suicide. He left a letter, in which he referred to the working conditions and the ‘moral pressure’ he had been subjected to. In April, a worker in the same company hanged himself in a mechanics workshop. The following month, three other workers committed suicide away from the company’s premises, and in July, a 55-year old worker hanged himself in the manufacturing plant.

In October 2007, the respective services of the Ministry of Labour, Social Relations and Solidarity (Ministère du Travail, des Relations Sociales et de la Solidarité) sent a warning to a site of the computer manufacturer IBM, indicating that the ministry had been informed about repeated cases of employees suffering from psychological problems. This began with the suicide of a computer technician in 2006.

Each of these suicides was highlighted in the media, especially as other suicides had occurred in a range of different companies, including the French Electricity Board (Electricité de France, EDF) and the international food and facilities management service provider Sodexho. Not all of the deceased left letters stating that working conditions were the cause of their action, but public opinion makes the link; articles in the media considered these suicides as messages to the respective employers alerting them about the workers’ inability to deal with the workload and meet the performance targets imposed on them. The widow of the first engineer, who died at Renault, gave evidence along these lines, saying that in recent times her husband worked every evening and on weekends and only slept two hours each night; he lost confidence in himself and said he was ‘no good’.

Psychologists said that it was difficult to identify the causes of suicide, which are often multiple; however, they emphasised that committing suicide at one’s workplace is not insignificant and leaves a negative message to those who remain. Furthermore, independent auditors have confirmed that design engineers at Renault are at huge psycho-social risk because of their heavy workloads.

Management reaction

The phenomenon has caught management unprepared in the concerned companies. Human resources directors had to admit, in a state of shock, that they did not have any explanation or immediate answer to provide. They often rejected any responsibility and indicated that the suicides were the result of difficulties which were not related to work.

Initially, Renault’s management stated that the engineer in question had marital problems, but his wife vehemently denied this allegation. Management also fought hard against this suicide being recognised as an occupational accident by the social security insurance (Assurance maladie). However, protest against such a decision, which was considered as offensive and contested by both the widow and the trade unions, led social security management to review its decision and company management to make a compromise.

Renault’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Carlos Ghosn, intervened directly in order to rectify the public image of his corporation, given that the suicide of engineers was an indictment of his programme called ‘Renault Contrat 2009’. The latter had been presented to the press in 2006 and involved designing 26 new models by 2009, without taking on additional staff. Mr Ghosn recognised that there was ‘objectively immense pressure’ and a very heavy workload for engineers. He also admitted that even if ‘Renault does not have the right to fail, each colleague in the company has the right to do so’ – this indicates a willingness to reduce the moral pressure on individuals. Each week, time will be set aside to enable teams to meet their managers and raise problems concerning the way work is organised. The recruitment of 110 extra staff or temporary agency workers has also been promised to cope with the extra workload.

At Peugeot – and also at Renault – management opened a dedicated psychological helpline for workers. The company also plans to hold training for managers on methods of detecting members of staff whose situations appear to be critical.

Reactions to the suicides

Trade unions, workers and experts all commented on the current state of working conditions in companies and the way in which events have been managed.

Experts – including psychologists, sociologists and ergonomists – unanimously invite companies to reflect on choices regarding work organisation and the possibilities of changing work organisation in order to reduce sources of stress. They highlight the urgent need to reflect on work organisation issues, as 60% of employees in France indicate that they work to tight deadlines.

Employees do complain about difficult working conditions. At Peugeot, a colleague of one of the people who committed suicide underlined the continuous reduction in staff numbers: ‘not long ago there were 2,000 of us; soon there will only be 500’.

The change in management’s attitudes, notably in those of managers at Renault, has generally been appreciated by the trade unions. 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) stated, however, that it was waiting to see which kind of resources would be made available to face the issue of workers’ suicides in the workplace. The General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) considered that management did not deal with the deepest causes of stress at work.

Identified causes

Beyond ‘fragile staff situations’ identified by management, employees and trade unions continue to denounce deeper causes for these suicides in the workplace. According to CGT, the race for profits, pressure of targets and deadlines, as well as ‘excessive individualisation’ and each person being forced to compete with their colleague could be incriminated. The French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) also observes a certain malaise in companies. The General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force ouvrière, CGT-FO) claims that ‘today, colleagues do not even talk to each other’ and that ‘convivial areas’ have been closed, including places to eat, thus leading to greater isolation of workers within a company. Moreover, CGT refers to the use of standard letters sent by management to employees who are on sick leave – the confederation has counted about 150 of them, criticising workers for ‘absenteeism that is incompatible with industrial organisation’. CFE-CGC also identifies ‘pressure resulting from fierce competition at international level’.

The trade unions would have preferred more radical measures, such as those proposed by CGT, including a 10-minute break every hour, an end to formalised pressure through the issuing of letters to workers, as well as an audit by an independent consultancy which specialises in stress at work.

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’.

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

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