France Telecom has a problem—a suicide problem. Twenty-four employees at the third-largest telecommunications company in the world have committed suicide in the past 20 months. The reason, according to union representatives, is the unusually high stress levels employees endure at work. Circumstances surrounding some of the deaths have lent credence to this position: before one 52-year-old worker killed himself in July, he reportedly penned a note that read, “I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom. That’s the only reason.” A 32-year-old woman who leapt from her office building in front of her colleagues and a 51-year-old who jumped off a bridge in the Alps cited similar motivations.
Predictably, there were cheers last week when France Telecom’s second-in-command resigned. Louis-Pierre Wenes, nicknamed “cost-killer,” was behind a massive restructuring that saw the company lay off 22,000 employees between 2006 and 2008. (The French government even chimed in: a spokesman for the country’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement party applauded the resignation, calling it “a very important move.”) In addition, France Telecom announced it would suspend 500 job transfers, and offer staff counselling services and access to an emergency hotline.
According to the World Health Organization, in 2005 France experienced 17.6 suicides per 100,000 people. With a staff of 100,000, France Telecom maintains its suicide rate is not particularly unusual. And the company isn’t the first in France to be plagued by suicide: an inquiry into working conditions at automaker Renault, launched in 2007 after three workers at a single plant committed suicide in four months, concluded that the level of stress staff experience was four times the national average; Peugeot experienced six suicides the same year.