More French office workers are dying by suicide every day. I don’t mean they’re wasting time in dead-end careers. They’re jumping out of windows.
The Guardian reports:
France Telecom, now Europe’s third-biggest phone company, has seen its brand name, Orange, suffer a public relations disaster as 24 workers have killed themselves in shocking circumstances in the last 18 months, with at least a dozen others making failed attempts to take their lives. Some staff were found dead in their workplace or left harrowing notes blaming the company for “management by terror” and bullying.
In the latest death, a 51-year-old threw himself off a bridge in the Alps after being moved from a back-office job to one in a call centre. Previously, a 32-year-old jumped from her office in front of colleagues at the end of the working day. Both left notes blaming unbearable working conditions and enforced job changes.
It’s possibly a statistical quirk. France Telecom employs 100,000 people, and unfortunately a percentage of any big number of people kill themselves annually, as The Independent points out.
But if the suicide notes are to be believed, then the news is even sadder and more frustrating.
Long-time readers will know I rail against relying on a day job. This whole affair reminds me why.
Whose life is it anyway?
Some British pundits have offered a larky response, smirking that French employees can’t cope with having their long Gallic lunch breaks interrupted by a dose of Anglo-Saxon economic reality.
Au revoir laziness – bonjour suicide.
Such sarcasm misses the point. I don’t doubt French employees are being hit by the global downturn like everyone else. And perhaps they did previously enjoy better hours, job security and redundancy deals compared to workers in Britain and the US, let alone the developing world.
But people don’t kill themselves because of the coffee breaks; if you’re worried you’re having fewer lazy lunches, you’ll have even fewer when you’re gone.
No, I fear that some of these employees made their fatal mistake long before they killed themselves. They mistook their job for their life, and they grew dependent upon their employer to rule how they lived. Any changes to their job threatened not only their work day, but – in their eyes – their existence as human beings.
And living like this is madness in the modern world.
Don’t dream of genie
It is crazy to give your life for a company that would strike you off with a month’s notice, a company for whom you’re a blip in its profit and loss account.
It is crazy to think your employer – however good and considerate – cares in its DNA about you more than you do.
I say this not as left-wing anarchist, but as a capitalist. I believe capitalism is the best system we have in this imperfect world, but also that it can drag you under.
As an investor, I want companies to treat their employees well, not only because I believe it leads to better results, but because I’m a human being.
But do I want them to employ people they shouldn’t employ? To shy away from innovation in the office because some people won’t like it? To avoid sacking anyone because they’ve worked there 30 years?
I’m afraid I don’t.
I could lie and say it’s because the company will go bust if it doesn’t take those steps – which is true – but the reality is it’ll start losing money and go downhill long before it goes bankrupt. It will be a lousy investment if it doesn’t change and change again.
To believe anything else is to wish for a lost era. Already some of the most difficult companies to analyse are big blue chips carrying massive pension deficits. These liabilities mean the companies are effectively investment funds with an engineering division or an airline bolted onto the side.
They promised workers the world when they believed they owned it. But today, final salary pensions make about as much sense as a Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.
Today, companies don’t know where they’re going to be in five years, let alone fifty. But they do know that the future is unclear, and so most are doing all they can within the law to avoid making big future obligations – except when it comes to the boardroom, where directors rush to boost their pensions and salary even as they cut jobs.
Meanwhile, some poor schmuck is working late believing in some ideal of a corporate man from the lost world of the 1950s, waiting for his chance to play golf with the boss.
Gone, gone, gone.
You can always quit
I’ve been employed, self-employed, an employer and unemployed. Every situation had its pros and cons.
Jobs are great for office banter, semi-security, and achieving bigger things than you could manage alone. But one of the greatest downsides to employment seems to me apparent in the France Telecom case.
Your horizons close in, when you’re employed. It’s easy to forget the world outside work, and even to become dispirited about your talents and your value. How pleasant your day is can depend on the whims of your boss or key colleagues. Or you can hate your job yet feel you can’t afford to leave.
Listen – if the alternative is eventually killing yourself, you can afford to leave.
Very few people should take any job so seriously, and I mean that from the heart, not as a glib aside.
If you’re a brain surgeon who is struck off, or a violinist with arthritis, or if you’ve started your own business with your life savings and you’re going bankrupt, then the loss might just be important enough to warrant an existential crisis.
But most of us aren’t like that. I’m not, and you’re probably not either.
Even if your specific skills aren’t transferable — and they usually are — then your talents will be. And if you feel you’re too old to get a new job, you ought to get a new job before it’s too late.
If your job is your vocation and for some physical, medical or legal reason you can never do it again – even for free – then you have my sympathy.
But if you’re a middle manager in a corporation who gets downsized, you have my commiserations but not my condolences. It’s bad luck, but it shouldn’t kill you.
This is the real world. Industries have been hollowed out over the past 30 years. Half of us spend our time devising software or processes to put the other half out of a job. A workplace in transition shouldn’t surprise anyone.
For our economy, this is good news – but does mean constantly reinventing companies and creating new ones to find new products and markets that the world needs.
For individuals, it means you must look after yourself, your friends and your family first. Work for your company – but invest for your future.
Because you’re worth it
Is this an excuse to goof about in your day job?
No – I say be the best you can, not only so you do good work, but also so you know what you’re capable of and what you’re worth.
Does it mean your boss is an evil slave driver?
No – she’s in the same boat as you, although she might not know it yet.
Think of yourself as having skills and the ability to charge for them, not a job. And if you need more skills, get them.
But please never, ever, make the fatal mistake of giving your life to your employer. Your employer can’t and won’t give it back.
(Photo by Katmere)