Business of Well-being

Lessons Learned from France Telecom: Stress in the Workplace

Recently CBS evening news aired a piece on France Telecom, Europe's largest broadband Internet company. It wasn't the massive layoffs that got my attention. Sure 22,000 jobs lost between 2006 and 2008 is notable but what struck me was the number of employee suicides. There have been 26 deaths in an 18 month period.

A thirty-one year old woman jumped to her death from her fifth floor office window after she was told her job was changing again. A worker stabbed himself in the stomach during a staff meeting and a fifty-two year male killed himself and left behind a note saying." "I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom."

Employees of France Telecom have cited constant pressure to resign, impossible goals, frequent forced relocations and chaotic reorganization. Critics have accused France Telecom of prioritizing short-term profit over long-term sustainability. One staffer was quoted as saying "People are treated like numbers. It's a cumulative process."  

It was reported that employees booed their CEO, Didier Lombard, after the last suicide. Pressured by the French government, France Telecom announced the suspension of job transfers and corporate re-organization at least until the end of this year and the company will bring the equivalent of 1,000 outsourced jobs back in-house.  

However, skeptics think the cat is out of the bag and these measures will not put an end to this epidemic. French car giants Renault and Peugeot have also experienced numerous employee suicides. Authorities at Peugeot's Sport division are examining whether an employee suicide was connected to workplace pressure.

France's ministry of labor recently announced an emergency plan that would require all companies with 1,000+ employees to implement stress reduction measures by February 2010. France is also considering a public relations campaign that would commend companies that help employees manage with job stress - while publicly shaming companies that do not.

While nearly any work scenario can be a potential source of stress, and an individual's personality and coping style are important in predicting whether certain job conditions will cause stress, research also suggests that certain working conditions are bound to be stressful to most people.

The idea of job stress is often confused with challenge, but these concepts are not the same. Challenge energizes us psychologically and physically, and motivates us to learn new skills and master our jobs. Challenge is an important ingredient for healthy and productive work but job stress occurs when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.

Workplace conditions that lead to stress include:

  • Lack of decision-making capabilities for employee, poor communication in the organization and lack of family-friendly policies.
  • Lack of support or help from supervisors and coworkers.
  • Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, and too many hats to wear.
  • Rapid changes for which workers are unprepared, job insecurity situations in which employees have reasons to feel worried about the stability of their future with the firm/company/business--and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement or promotion.
  • Unpleasant or dangerous conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution or ergonomic problems are all examples of environmental conditions that can directly contribute to stress on the job.
  • Heavy workloads, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours and shift-work; hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers skills and provide little sense of control.

France is not the only country facing an increase in employee suicides. According to The New York Times, workplace suicides rose significantly from 2007 to 2008, to a series high of 251 nationwide. These numbers don't include suicides that were committed outside the workplace.

It's been a rough couple of years for many American between home values plummeting, loss of savings and a general implosion of the economy. Add work related stress and it is a perfect storm for many. Consider the following "25% of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives."--Northwestern National Life"75% of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago."--Princeton Survey Research Associates" Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor--more so than even financial problems or family problems."--St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co. France Telecom is a wake-up call to all companies worldwide.

The lesson learned from their tragedy is to reduce and manage workplace stress in order to avoid ever getting to a place of rampant workplace suicide. Now more than ever is the time to institute a workplace wellness program with a focus on stress reduction. There are many resources, programs and services that can fit any budget, time constraint and location.

  • For managers concerned about workplace suicide, below is information and resources on suicide prevention:
  • Download the SPRC's handbook on what employers can do to prevent suicide
  • Call (or direct your employee to call) the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Read ValueOptions' guidelines for creating a comprehensive suicide prevention plan for the workplace

Camille Hoheb has performed strategic planning and directed both operations and marketing to the health and wellness industries for nearly two decades. Her experience has spanned-and-linked physicians, hospitals, spas, wellness destinations and executive and group health business.

Ms. Hoheb earned her Master's degree in Health Care Administration and has been widely published. Ms. Hoheb is an Advisory Board member to both Corporate Wellness Magazine and Health Tourism Magazine and she sits on the Executive Committee of the Corporate Health and Wellness Association.

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