The work-life imbalance

24 employees of France Télécom have committed suicide over the last 18 months. The deaths have been linked to the lack of job security, isolation within the company and increasing demands for employee flexibility. In French daily Le Monde two sociologists examine the story in the wider context of a society, where the meaning of work is undergoing significant change.

Published on 29 September 2009 at 16:07
 | The new Death Row. Image: Dennis Matheson

The sociological examination of suicide in the tradition of Emile Durkheim and Maurice Halbwachs has significantly enhanced our knowledge of modern societies, but it does little to provide direct explanations for individual suicide, or series of suicides like the one that has struck France Télécom. Only studies conducted by interdisciplinary teams can aspire to elucidate such critical situations in the workplace, and expect to provide solutions. The investigation of data gathered over more than a century, which now covers virtually every country on the planet, can nonetheless offer a certain insight and perspective on the series of tragedies that are now in the news.

In cross referencing rates of suicide with data on social class, the trends suggest that hypotheses should focus on the meaning that those who take their lives attribute to their daily activity. Societies where the struggle for survival is a necessity for all are marked by very low rates of suicide. As Durkheim remarked, there is a measure of “protection in poverty.” However, it should be noted that this type of poverty is an integrating force that is experienced as an inevitable condition of life, with which everyone must contend. This must be differentiated from individual poverty in modern societies, which is experienced as an exceptional destiny and is thus devoid of any integrating quality.

An increasingly white-collar phenomenon

In the 1960s, the rate of suicide in France was highest among farmers, and this phenomenon was closely linked to a concurrent rural exodus, which robbed the transmission of rural heritage and values associated with working the land of their traditional meaning. In the 1970s, which was marked by the development of assembly line production, workers had the highest rate of suicide. Sociologist Renaud Sainsaulieu, who studied assembly lines where workers were almost completely isolated, remarked that they were often dehumanized to the point where they were surprised to be treated as people when they returned home from their jobs.

In recent years, the rate of suicide among white collar staff is increasingly close to the rate among their blue collar colleagues. In both spheres, the lack of job security and demands for greater flexibility have contributed to stress in the work place. When associated with limited power of decision, heavy psychological demands generate considerable stress, which may be increased by isolation in the workplace. The same is true of perceived imbalances between required effort and expected rewards. This is a key issue with regard to salaries and levels of pay, but it is also important in terms of social and professional recognition. New management methods have tended to make work more intensive and undermine solidarity between workers at a time when tension has been boosted by the increased threat of unemployment. Today, the highest rate of suicide is among the non-retired unemployed. Redundancy results in a considerable reduction of daily social contact, and a heightened sense of isolation and unhappiness, which has been well documented in national surveys conducted by INSEE.

A form of public protest

Work in our societies cannot be reduced to an econometric equation, which views it solely as an exchange of energy for material benefits. It is also important to take into account the signficance that individuals attribute to their work not only in the present moment, but also in the course of a lifetime, and in the context of the longer time frame of generations. International comparisons also suggest that approachs which are solely based on an economic vision of work fail to examine important issues. Great Britain and the United States, which have a greater tradition of competition and more of a focus on individual productivity, have relatively low rates of suicide when compared to France and northern European countries. But those who are eager to copy British and American models should not forget that religious tradtionalism provides a measure of compensation for the hardness of the market in those countries. Consideration of the significance of economic activity should not lose sight of the fact that perceptions of work need to be analyzed in the wider context of what constitutes a meaningful life.

Suicides in the workplace are exceptional in as much as they take place in the public domain — like the suicides of women in Nouvelle-Guinée — and they definitely have a protest value. Clearly, they should be interpeted as an additional reason for reflection on the meaning we attribute to work, which should not be viewed as a laborious method of obtaining individual income. And this is the message we must communicate to our politicians.

France Telécom

“This fashion for suicide”

On 28 September, a 51-year-old family man threw himself off a bridge in Haute-Savoie, in southern France. The man who was employed by France Télécom left a note, in which explained that he was unable to cope with the “the atmosphere in the company.” His death is one of 24 suicides by France Télécom employees since the beginning of 2008. Some of the suicides have been extremely violent and highly symbolic of unhappiness at work: in one case a 32-year-old woman jumped from the window of a building owned by the telecommunications company in Paris. The story of the wave of suicides and suicide attempts, which has been widely reported in the French media is a highly controversial topic in France, where public debate has focused on the motives of those who took their lives, and possible solutions to prevent further deaths. A former public company, France Télécom was partially privatized in 1998. In a bid to retain its share of a newly competitive market, it has implemented a major restructuring plan and introduced new management methods. On 15 September, France Télécom CEO Didier Lombard prompted an outcry when he spoke of the mode du suicide (fashion for suicide) in the company. He offficially apologized the following day, and claimed that his disgraceful remark was the result of a botched attempt to express the English word “mood” in French.

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