In the middle of a meeting with his bosses at France Telecom in eastern Paris on September 9, technician Yonnel Dervin whipped out a knife, pointed the blade toward himself, and jabbed it into his own stomach. Yes, his position was being eliminated, but his three decades of tenure and his old-school contract meant that Dervin, 49, could stay with the company in the same city, field, and office. He just had to do less interesting work with less prestige attached to it.
In a country with few guns in private hands, employees on the edge can’t go postal and take out co-workers, but a disturbing number are killing themselves.
Before anyone concludes that Dervin is just the sort of mentally ill employee who snaps in a recession, it is worth mentioning that such workplace freakouts are hardly unprecedented at France Telecom. On September 14, an employee in the French town of Metz responded to word that she would be transferred to a new city (to work with unknown colleagues) by leaving for her lunch break—and feasting on barbiturates. She was found unconscious, but alive.
Or how about when, on September 11, company management told a 32-year-old employee in the mobile-phone division that she, too, would be assigned to a new team. She returned to her fifth-floor office, opened the window, and leapt out onto the street in Paris’ 17th arrondissement. She died at the hospital—the sixth France Telecom employee to commit suicide in two months.
The company’s suicide summer is merely a peak in a disturbingly enduring trend. French unions say that, as of this writing, there have been 23 suicides in the company since early 2008. Who knew that on the list of notoriously suicide-friendly jobs—prison guards, emergency responders, firefighters, and psychiatrists—we might need to add telephony?
In a country with few guns in private hands, employees on the edge can’t go postal and take out coworkers, but a disturbing number are killing themselves. There are estimated to be between 300 and 400 work-related suicides per year in France, with a wide array of particularly high-profile deaths at former state monopolies. There were four suicides in a two-year period at a single power plant run by Électricité de France, and three more at the Technocentre Renault in the Parisian suburb of Guyancourt in a five-month period—including one man who threw himself from of the fifth floor and noisily landed on an indoor glass roof during the morning shift. But the epicenter of the phenomenon is France Telecom, where union representatives assert that there have been about as many failed suicide efforts as successful ones.
This death wave comes after years of frustration. Many France Telecom employees are furious that a company that facilitates communications between hundreds of millions of people seems so deaf to the stress, pain, and anguish of its own staff. They argue that management puts employees through the wringer—especially long-term, older employees who still enjoy civil-service status—as part of a relentless drive for profits. About 70 percent of the company's staff retains civil servant-level job protection and perks that date back to the company’s public-utility days, prior to 1996. Among other things, they are nearly impossible to fire. So unions accuse management of resorting to “harcèlement moral,” which translates as “moral harassment,” although it specifically refers to illegal workplace bullying that often aims to drive down morale and persuade protected employees to quit.
The company denies such accusations, while acknowledging that a change in professional culture has accompanied its transition from a state monopoly to a multinational corporation in the cutthroat international phone market. Over the past 11 years management has eliminated about 40,000 jobs. Approximately 22,000 employees were replaced by just 5,000 (cheaper) newcomers between 2006 and 2008. Amid the transformation, some of the company’s 70 doctors warned of a rising stress tide, and 13 of them quit, sometimes noting that their warnings were not heeded.
The privatized company has been remarkably successful (earning €4.1 billion in 2008), while its handling of the suicide surge has been stunningly tone deaf. Management initially argued—correctly, it seems—that the last 18 months don’t really represent a substantial increase in suicides, noting that between 20 and 30 employees have ended their lives annually throughout this decade (including 28 people in 2000 and 29 more in 2002). They have also pointed out that the company’s suicide rate for its 102,000 employees is now more or less in line with France’s national rate of 21 per 100,000 people.
Nobody seems to have told their spokespeople that while such a suicide rate might amount to an understandable tragedy among, say, down-and-out drug addicts or people working in extreme jobs, employees with stable and relatively well-paid jobs at one of the world’s biggest telephone companies, statistically speaking, shouldn’t be killing themselves so often. France Telecom spokespeople and staff have also reminded journalists that suicide is usually linked to an array of personal, not professional problems, and they have even hinted—unsourced, of course—at specific mental weaknesses among those who took their own lives. (Another item from the sweep-the-problem-under-the-rug files: an employee questionnaire published in 2008 indicated that two out of three employees felt stressed out, and one in six described themselves as being in "distress." France Telecom reportedly blocked employees' Web access to these results.)
Early this summer, though, a 51-year-old male employee in Marseille aimed to send an unequivocal message. He lamented overwork and "management by terror," and wrote of a sense of "permanent emergency" in the workplace. "I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom. It is the only reason," he wrote in his farewell letter. "I have become a wreck. It is best to finish it."
And yet, somehow, it was only in recent days—after the three fresh attempts—that the company appeared ready to mobilize. Management asserted in a statement that its absolute priority is to "stop this infernal spiral" caused by suicide's “contagion effect." On Septempber 15, the company’s CEO met with France’s minister of labor to seek solutions, while talks with unions are set to begin September 18 to address the enactment of a stress-reduction plan agreed to last year. All workplace transfers have been frozen until the end of October, and the CEO has encouraged his managers to initiate a dialogue with staff. The company also plans to hire more than 100 additional human-resources staffers and ask a law firm to conduct a suicide audit.
Such actions can’t come soon enough. Yonnel Dervin, the man who knifed himself last week, told the French news agency AFP after his five-day hospital stay that his act of self-destructive defiance came to him “in the moment when it was made clear that I was no longer good for anything,” Dervin said. “Today I no longer have a future in anything at all.”
He does not regret stabbing himself. He simply racks the physical pain up alongside the emotional anguish caused by the “psychological pressure” that he says came from management. Regardless of whether they believe him, I’ll bet the France Telecom managers can hear him now.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl . He is based in Paris.