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Suicides force French to confront rise in work-related stress

With 25 France Telecom employees committing suicide in the last two years, experts point to a work-related malaise. President Sarkozy calls for focusing on well-being, not production.

November 01, 2009|Devorah Lauter

PARIS — A short workweek and the prospect of early retirement. Job-protection laws that make it almost impossible to get fired. Seven weeks of holidays and vacation time a year. Oh, and paid lunches.

A harried American worker might ask: What's not to like?

And a dissatisfied French worker might respond: Plenty.

A wave of suicides at the country's largest telecommunications firm has unnerved France, long viewed by many outside the country as a cushy haven for employees. Experts say the incidents are the most visible examples of the growing phenomenon of stress-induced illness in the country.

Marie Peze opened the first French clinic focused on workplace suffering 10 years ago in a suburb northwest of Paris. She now has 900 people a year consulting her.

A thin woman with wispy light hair, Peze tells stories of her patients: the "overworked pawns," as she calls them, who have become a part of her life.

The young man who staggers into her clinic, his eyes hollowed and cupped in graying bags of skin. The woman so scared of facing her boss that she has developed ulcers, stopped getting her period and jumps at the sound of a ringing phone.

Peze says she handles an average of two to three suicide attempts a week.

At France Telecom, 25 employees have killed themselves in the last two years. It isn't known how many cases were in response to job strains, partly because it is difficult to determine a suicide's complex causes. But occasionally victims leave behind a note blaming their company.

"I couldn't take it anymore . . . spending hours in front of the screen like a real mechanical puppet. . . . If only my gesture could serve some purpose," a France Telecom technician identified only as Jean-Michel wrote before he threw himself in front of a train in July 2008. He was 53 and married with three children.

With the France Telecom suicides as a backdrop, President Nicolas Sarkozy recently said he wanted the world to change its production-obsessed measure of national wealth.

In September, he argued for a new international economic indicator of wealth based less on gross domestic product and more on "well-being" cultivated through leisure and social benefits, among others.

The idea for the "alternative wealth indicator" came from a government-commissioned study led by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, with another Nobel economics winner, Amartya Sen, as advisor.

French dissatisfaction has long been attributed to a national habit of grumbling, despite what others see as a rather favorable lot -- whether through frequent labor strikes or by managing to strut through Paris one's entire adult life without cracking a smile.

And wearing a lot of gray.

"Since the French are always complaining that nothing is going well," Sarkozy hoped to show through his alternative wealth indicator "that the situation here was less clear in terms of happiness than it appeared," political philosopher Yves Michaud said. "They are continually unhappy, but in fact have considerable advantages."

Experts also point to a clash between the traditional values inherited from France's public sector and some badly managed cases of the market-flexible approach in today's global economy.

"In every country, we have our own way of conceiving what it means to be correctly treated by our company," said Philippe d'Iribarne, a leading expert on international job cultures.

In France, that notion is centered on a "vision that we are someone and we stay someone, because we have a profession and that profession is respected," he said. Traditionally, one "is proud of his trade, and ready to sacrifice enormously for it."

At France Telecom, for instance, D'Iribarne found that many of the employees had to change job positions every three years on average, often with little notice, in order to better adapt to a changing market.

As a result, D'Iribarne said, "the idea of one's trade sort of dissolved."

Philippe Davezies, professor of workplace health and medicine at Claude Bernard University in Lyon, agreed.

"France Telecom found itself in this position with tens of thousands of people with a different concept of society than theirs," he said.

But most believe the problem goes beyond France Telecom, whose No. 2 executive, Louis-Pierre Wenes, was forced to resign Oct. 5 under public pressure over "brutal" organizational shifts since the company started privatizing in 1997. The last reported suicide occurred Oct. 15.

Work experiences vary widely in different job sectors here, but "a suicide strongly linked to difficulty on the job is the most dramatic outcome of a larger problem" in many French companies, said Christophe Dejours, a leading French psychiatrist and researcher on work-induced illness and suicides.

He has closely followed a "qualitative jump" in work- and stress-linked "psycho-social" illnesses observed across the French workforce. He said the illnesses "are linked to a steep increase in overall intensification of work."

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