France Telecom suicides: Ignore emotional wellbeing at your peril

Work can sometimes get you down. Even those individuals who are passionate about their jobs and could never imagine doing anything else will be familiar with the scenario of occasionally feeling stressed out at work and desperately wishing for the weekend.

The economic downturn has undoubtedly increased the pressure. The Chartered Management Institute’s (CMI) latest economic outlook paints a bleak picture of current workplace conditions, with morale worse than earlier this year in 65% of organisations, and the vast majority of UK managers (82%) feeling the negative effects of the recession.

It has been a difficult year. The pressure of financial uncertainty, job insecurity, heavier workloads due to smaller teams and now the added demands that will be placed on us as we move towards recovery, are all mounting up. It has led to major changes at hundreds of organisations, from major restructuring to enforced redundancies or reduced working weeks. It also looks as though it will be some time yet before businesses begin to feel the positive effects of the recovery that economists have heralded.

This may make most of us want to seek refuge by taking time off, or perhaps considering a career move. But 25 men and women at France Telecom sadly saw taking their own lives as the only way out.

The shocking spate of recent suicides at the company has left the country reeling, and the French government is citing stress as the root cause of the tragedy. France’s labour minister, Xavier Darcos, has called for 2,500 of the country’s largest organisations to negotiate ‘anti-stress strategies’ with unions, and for measures to be put in place that may help prevent a tragedy on this scale from ever happening again.

The exact details of what happened are slowly emerging and no doubt further investigations will help reveal the circumstances behind the shocking headlines. For now, unions are blaming the mismanagement of France Telecom’s organisational restructure, which they say resulted in untenable stress and pressure for workers. Blame has also been attached to its authoritarian, ‘top down’ management style.

CMI’s quality of working life research shows that an authoritarian management style is prevalent in almost a third of UK organisations. Our research also shows that, unsurprisingly, where suspicious, secretive or authoritarian management is the norm, levels of bullying are higher. In addition, 42% of respondents to our 2008 bullying at work survey last year said they had experienced some form of bullying in the past three years.

I don’t know enough about the situation at France Telecom to be able to say whether workers there were subjected to bullying, but it seems increasingly likely that the lives of some were made more difficult by the management style they encountered. It is sometimes said that in business, change is the only constant. In times of economic difficulty this is certainly the case, but at what point does it all become too much, and how can we stop a similar tragedy happening on this side of the Channel?

We know that, when handled badly, the side effects of organisational change are often increased working hours (in 43% of cases) and a loss of key skills (60%). Long hours also negatively affect health and wellbeing – more than half of CMI members surveyed cited lack of appetite, insomnia and headaches as consequences of a long-hours culture.

As events at France Telecom show, if the health and wellbeing of workers is pushed aside in favour of meeting targets or implementing an urgent programme of organisational change, the results can be catastrophic. It is crucial that managers and leaders in UK organisations take notice of what has happened in France and prioritise the health and wellbeing of their workforces, especially in times of economic darkness.


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