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Page last updated at 16:11 GMT, Tuesday, 15 September 2009 17:11 UK

Suicides lift lid on French misery

Office Scene

The recent highly-publicised suicides at France Telecom may or may not be statistically unusual.

But they have certainly caught attention and lifted the lid on the high levels of depression among French workers, says the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby in Paris.

A crisis meeting between French Labour Minister, Xavier Darcos, and France Telecom's chief executive, Didier Lombard illustrated that both sides have begun to regard the industrial suicide problem very seriously.

Mr Darcos said the government understood the "particular situation of a company like France Telecom".

"A company which is on the cutting edge of technology, that doesn't stop undergoing technological and economic changes, and that, as a result, is a jewel of the French technological world.

"But precisely because it is submitted to this evolution and change, it's essential that the company is very attentive to its workers, and that it understands that there is no technological progress without social progress."

On Monday, staff at a France Telecom customer service agency in the eastern city of Metz found a 53-year-old senior manager unconscious on the floor.

France Telecom workers
France Telecom workers accuse the company of failing to help staff

She had apparently taken an overdose of barbiturates after learning she was to be posted to another part of the country for the third time in a year, CFDT union official Pierre Dubois said.

On Friday a 32-year-old female worker at France Telecom threw herself out of a fourth floor window of her Paris office building.

Her death came just a couple of days after a 53-year-old man was found dead at home, allegedly leaving behind a letter blaming his job for his desperation.

The same week a technician stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting at Troyes - he told journalists his action was designed to denounce working conditions at France Telecom.

Unions blame the 23 employee suicides partly on restructuring and working conditions at France Telecom.

Privatised

The company, previously a division of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, was largely privatised in 1998 and management say the changes - moving people from civil servant status to private employees - have come in at a fast pace.

The management admits the restructuring programme could have a possible connection with recent events.

In 2000 there were 28 suicides at the company, 29 in 2002 .

France Telecom insists however that 23 suicides over the past 18 months is still within the normal range for a company of its size - it has 100,000 personnel.

The French suicide rate was 15 per 100,000 in 2004 - the last year that data was released.

But France Telecom is clearly worried.

Last week the company announced several measures in response to the suicides, including suspending around 500 employee transfers that are part of an ongoing re organisation plan.

Employees have been asked to look out for signs of depression among colleagues.

Stress soaring

It is a standing joke for many British and Americans that life for French workers is pretty much a picnic - the 35-hour week, the alleged two-hour lunch break and those long, long holidays.

France Telecom logo
France Telecom has set up meetings with staff to discuss the suicides

But according to the World Health Organization, France has one of the highest industrial-related suicide rates in the world - only the US and the Ukraine have more cases of work-related depression.

It is also known that the rate of work-related suicides is on the increase here - one of France's biggest Unions, the CGT, claims that there are 300-400 suicides a year directly attributable to working conditions - that is around one worker a day.

Two years ago, the polling group TNS Sofres, carried out a survey on problems at work.

Three quarters of those surveyed said the word "stress" best summed up their work life and practices.

Restructuring plans

France Telecom is not the only commercial enterprise to be troubled by employee suicides.

In February 2007, a French prosecutor opened an inquiry into working conditions at Renault after the third suicide in four months at one of the carmaker's state-of-the-art plants at Guyancourt, Yvelines.

One of the deaths involved a 38-year-old father who died at his home, leaving a letter blaming work difficulties for his death.

Unions blamed the deaths on restructuring plans at the plant, claiming the employees were under too much pressure from managers.

The results of the inquiry, which estimated that employees were working under a level of strain which was four times higher than the national average, has led to certain changes at the company - meetings no longer start after 1800, breaks at work are observed, and there are more meetings between employees to improve communication.

A further six suicides at fellow carmaker Peugeot the same year prompted the government to hold a special autumn conference with employers, workers and trade unions to try to tackle the subject of labour conditions.

Peugeot itself responded to the suicides by introducing an emergency hotline and a counselling service for employees suffering from stress.

Xavier Darcos urged France Telecom not to lose sight of the individual in the huge company and suggested it modelled itself on companies like Renault which had made big changes in the wake of its spate of employee suicides.

France Telecom immediately announced it was setting up a hotline with external advisors and counsellors which anyone suffering from work-related problems could dial for free.

The company has also set up meetings with 500 of its most senior staff to discuss the suicides.

On Monday President Sarkozy announced he planned to make happiness and wellbeing key indicators of the country's economic progress.

But with the recession still biting here, and more lay-offs likely, France Telecom may drag that graph into a downwards curve.



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