French Company Plagued by Employee Suicides

Tuesday, December 1, 2009
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France-Telecom, a Paris-based conglomerate with 100,000 employees, has been rocked by a recent spate of suicides among its workforce: 24 employee suicides within the last 19 months.

The company, which has been undergoing a major reorganization, has been attacked by unions representing some of its employees for the manner in which the reorganization has been handled, according to the Associated Press.

Approximately 22,000 France-Telecom workers were laid off between 2006 and 2008 as the company transitioned from a government-owned communications monopoly to a private-sector organization.

Among the latest victims was a 51-year-old father of two who left a note in his car, in which he blamed his act on the "atmosphere" at his workplace, according to published reports.

The company's second-in-command, Louis-Pierre Wenes, resigned his position in October.

France-Telecom has announced a series of measures in response to the crisis, including a help line for troubled employees and the suspension of 500 employee transfers that were planned as part of the reorganization, according to reports.

France has among the highest suicide rates in Europe. According to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in France in 2005 (the latest year for which figures were available) was 26.4 per 100,000 for men and 9.2 for women. By comparison, the suicide rate in the United States was 17.7 for men and 4.5 for women in 2005.

However, the rate of workplace suicides in the United States has risen during the past two years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, suicides in American workplaces rose by 28 percent between 2007 and 2008 -- from 196 to 251.

Speaking openly about workplace suicides is taboo at most European workplaces, says Ewa Antonowicz, clinical director at ComPsych, a Chicago-based employee-assistance-program provider.

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"There's still a stigma attached to mental-health issues in Europe, more so than over here," she says, noting that U.S. workers "tend to be more open" about such topics.

ComPsych receives about 70 calls per month from suicidal employees or family members concerned about the risk of suicide, she says, but notes that EAPs remain relatively new to Europe and other regions of the world.

In addition to expressions of hopelessness or outright threats of suicide, the classic signs of someone at risk include abrupt changes in behavior, such as an employee who is habitually neatly dressed and punctual suddenly coming in to work late and looking disheveled, she says.

HR should refer employees to an EAP or appropriate community resources, she says. If necessary, they should call 911.

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