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Don’t kill yourself over a job

Nobody should leave their place in the world before their time over a job.

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)

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • 1 Lee October 10, 2009, 9:51 pm

    I should have read this post before I posted Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back a moment ago. You have picked me up off my floor, just a little.

    Thank you.

  • 2 Jesse October 11, 2009, 3:29 am

    That’s so sad, especially the younger people. I mean, early thirties? Is your job really that important that you would prefer to just end it all?

    I wonder if any of the deaths were connected. Maybe they all work for the same company and if so, someone should probably look into this a bit more 😉

  • 3 David @ Money Under 30 October 13, 2009, 5:50 pm

    I see so many of my friends defining their entire lives by their jobs. They’re actually proud of working 100 hour weeks (their only facebook status updates are how much they are working!)

    I just say to myself, why, why, why?

    Life is about so much more than work. Sure, we should take pride in our jobs and do good work, but at the end of the day we work to put food on the table and allow ourselves to do the OTHER things we want to do with life.

    The sooner people get this, the happier they’ll be!

  • 4 The Investor October 13, 2009, 6:14 pm

    I agree David, but I see it’s an easy trap to fall into. It makes some sense perhaps if it’s your own company or a vocation you love, but if it’s just for the money…

    Even then I do a blog called Monevator so I can’t really complain about the urge to maximise earnings — but I’d (a) urge such people to buy future investment income with most of it (not ‘stuff’) and (b) remember they are, in the politest way possible and compatible with living in a decent society, in it for themselves, not for their employer.

    Creating an expensive lifestyle full of obligations that you can only finance with a high paying job you don’t like that exists on the whim of an employer = disaster.

  • 5 Jelle November 9, 2009, 8:48 pm

    This is not a very nice post at all. Basically you are scolding these that got in suchbig trouble that the only way out they saw was suicide, and you are telling them that they are stupid for letting their job get the better of them? Nice talking, until you find yourself in such a position. The awful point is that they were in that situation, with those horrible consequences. I think it is very bad taste you chose this subject for your grandstanding-look-at-me-I-know-it-better.
    On the other hand, maybe these people ended up in shitty positions because their unions did not allow for layoffs, and this was their companies response: put them in a shitty job until they leave by themselves. A sign of a rotten corporate culture IMHO. But nobody would have known if these people were ‘just’ laid off. So contrary to your brave jobhopping ethic, some people cannot handle the stress that uncertain employment brings with it. Your approach would be to just leave them to kills themselves and I think that is very very wrong.

  • 6 The Investor November 10, 2009, 10:12 am

    Hi Jelle, thanks for your comments. I understand why you think it’s inappropriate to talk about people who have killed themselves; my view is it’s such a serious matter that we really *must* talk about it. I don’t speak specifically about any individuals here, which would be harder to defend in my view, but it wouldn’t stop me doing it in what I believed was a respectful fashion. Compared to the way innumerable news oulets rake over the details of murder and death for public titillation, I don’t think my linking this post with the spate of suicides to make a serious point is that bad by comparison. I accept your view differs.

    As someone who has suffered from depression myself many years ago, I certainly do not trivialise it – the whole point of this post is I think it’s a serious issue. Your view I take from your reply is that other people should have helped them or at least not failed them – employers, the unions. In my view, relying on other people/the world to make things better is one of the things that keeps people depressed/in a cycle of despair. For huge areas of industry over the past 30 years in Western Europe and the US, such a strategy would have been suicidal as swathes of industry were mothballed and jobs sent overseas. Relying on unions/employers would have ended in misery – and indeed you see that in many former industrial communities in the UK and I suspect the US.

    Finally, the issue isn’t what they did, for whom it is clearly too late. The issue is what we/readers do, and what they’re attitude is. If this post makes people less reliant on the whims of an employer, and more able to derive their strength of self from within themselves, then I’m content it’s done it’s a positive contribution.

  • 7 alfonso pilato November 30, 2009, 1:25 am

    In the jungle, predators feast over the weak. Brutal but true.

    In a “civilization”, a “society”, worldly posessions are the “quicksand”. If you want to get out of danger, let go of them. Simple, yes? Only a child can see that. The more we grow the more we lose that discernability. Stay young at heart, said so many time, but so true.

    Put in zen terms, let go of all worldly attachments and you’ll be free and happy. Give to the needier. There will always be one needier than you.

  • 8 Leslie Juvin March 7, 2010, 2:37 pm

    Hello Investor,

    I am glad that you’re talking about the serious issues of job related depression and I thought I might add some additional insight into the France telecom/French employment issues to enhance your article.

    As a resident in France and coach for clientele in Europe and U.S.A. , I can tell you that France telecom is a seriously inefficient company with operations problems. It takes weeks upon weeks to do a simple internet/cable connect and customer service is very weak and inefficient. This type of inefficiency isn’t limited to the French culture itself; this is a universal problem.

    Economically and culturally, most French people are unemployed on average of 18-24 months. Yes, that’s up to two years without employment. I can safely assume that these employees may get social aid from the French government in the event of quitting their job, but they must prove a lot of things and can easily be denied aid on the whim of a government worker. If you do qualify for help, it can take around 6 months to get the paperwork processed (if somebody doesn’t lose your file) and a check in your bank account.

    The hiring processes in France are very strict with rigorous psychological exams (for those in mid and upper level management); a client of mine took 5 hours of exams in one session. The country still analyzes handwriting! Employment taxes are very high, adding to the additional hesitancy of hiring new employees. A friend of mine is an attorney for major companies in France (like FNAC) and she reported the frustrations with strict hiring laws and the social/job security issues alive today.

    In essence, the organizational problems coupled with social/economic quandaries have a huge impact on depression and the ability for employees to respond such difficulties. People in France are talking about this, but the problem is much deeper and will hopefully reach a resolution as the French business culture is evolving with greater international connectivity.

    Thanks for allowing my thoughts. 😀
    -Leslie Juvin

  • 9 The Investor March 8, 2010, 2:30 pm

    Interesting thoughts Leslie, thanks for sharing. It’s curious because all we ever here in the UK is how easy the French worker’s life is. But as you correctly point out there is a downside to this inflexibility in the labour market that gives them job safety.

  • 10 Sandman September 8, 2015, 2:17 am

    I tell you what I consider killing myself all the time. I cant get a job in my field, i cant make any money selling games.

    I dont have any friends, girlfriends, i dont go on vacations, i dont do anything. I rid my bike to the gym, watch tv/internet. im so burnt out and depressed. I tried to make games but I cant even get them greenlight, I tried putting them on the web for free but i cant get any downloads, I tried putting on mobile store but I made less than $1000 bucks.

    I spent years working on a product I sold and the best I ever did was make 1000 bucks a 1 month. If not for my meagre inheritance I dont know what Id survive.

    I often think life is not worth living for, theres more issues I dont want to think about let alone deal with. Yeah it fucking sucks

  • 11 Tigertiger January 1, 2016, 9:43 pm

    It’s a very interesting article and I have worked in 2 call centres one for over 5 years and another for just over 11 months. I have always suffered from depression and although I took pride in my job I realised it was taking over my life. (Funnily enough I worked for a French company in it’s based operations). It particularly hit home when they changed their computer systems causing far more problems than it solved. I became really ill with stress and ended up in hospital with horrendous chest infections. Despite this I was afraid not dragging myself into work I was made to feel like I was letting everyone down. Disciplinaries are a common practice so out of fear people are too afraid to allow themselves recover because they might lose their job and if you have time to try and ‘recover’ from depression you get disciplined on return. I ended up losing my job because the stress made me so sick and on a number of occasions I just wanted to kill myself as I just could not see any further forward. You see, even if all the people you talk to are human beings (most of them at least) there are rules, protocols and you are just a number. You don’t hit those precious KPIs, you have to do a certain amount of calls per hour even if they f**ked up (sorry for the language but they do and more often than not big time) you are front line clearing up the vitriol from furious or just plain frustrated customers. You know it’s a revolving door and you will be replaced in the click of a button by HR and about as memorable as the last used cigarette paper hastily rolled by the minions who mean to quit but it is the only way to escape for the tiny timed break that counts down your day to the second.

    My last job was in a call centre the one that lasted 11 months they kept me on from the 6 month contract so I must have done something right but the rot that large companies have is like honey fungus. Again I hoped rather foolishly this one would be better. I foolishly listened as they claimed it was quality over quantity. No it isn’t, it is the same. When I lost my job all recruitment agencies want to do is stuff you in another call centre or some other large firm that will swallow you whole and control your day moment by moment, second by second. I am currently unemployed the guilt of feeling useless and laughed at for trying to break free from large corporations is like trying to climb Snowdon in flip-flops. Not having a once upon a time ‘I was a CEO but I changed career…’ story for the normal pleb 12345 numbered fool makes it hard to swallow because many of us don’t have assets or savings to fall back on to switch it is a battle.

    In this time I have done 3 qualifications and 1 day a week at college in a subject I have always loved try telling a perspective employer you go to college 1 day a week and you can almost hear the ‘snort of derision’ (37 year old female a student I bet her ovaries are in overdrive).

    But I am going to fight on I never, ever want to be in the situation where I am treated like a number rather than as a person. I never want to be in the situation where I consider killing myself and visualising it because the corporation dictates my life to me and it is full of cant’s because they said so. I hope that the company I work for next is small and run by human beings who are governed by common sense and compassion about their staff, customers and their service about what they do. I know these companies exist. They are not fairy tales I have worked for some wonderful people in the past and it is not the world I am asking for. It is not angels trumpeting at the door on my arrival I don’t mind mucking in elbows deep, if I have to clean toilets to prove myself I will and in case you don’t believe me or the article I have known of three people who took their own lives because of their jobs and they were all young between 22 and 35 respectively someone in their thirties even had a stroke and another in his thirties died of a massive heart attack.

    So although I didn’t walk out of my job, it merely expired. I know there are jobs that pay just as well or less (I don’t mind) with less of the stress it doesn’t mean their easier it just means that they not so wrapped up dictatorship and revolving door protocols and enough red tape to put a neat bow around every employees throat to keep things as clear and simple as to realise their staff are after all, human.

  • 12 The Investor January 2, 2016, 6:38 pm

    @Tigertiger — Thanks for sharing your sometimes difficult experiences in such detail, and congratulations for battling through. I think all jobs have their moments and challenges, but you’re quite right I believe that there are ways for everyone (certainly everyone fit and able) to make their way in the world financially without having to put up with life-threatening stress and pressures. Of course it’s not all about the employer — we have a responsibility to find what works for us, too.

    I know my current way of making a living would drive some people crazy. Equally, you couldn’t pay me enough money to be a famous pop star even if I had the talent, I can’t think of anything worse for my particular personality type! Some people need to work outside, or with people, or on something that has a deeper meaning for them — even if the wages are lower. And so on.

    It’s not easy I appreciate, so good luck to all still struggling.

  • 13 Corvid June 1, 2017, 1:42 pm

    I know this is an old post, but the terminology around suicide can be quite sensitive for people bereaved by suicide. The phrase “committed suicide” implies the person who died did something illegal (which is no longer true in most places) or has sinned. Any chance of amending this to “died by suicide” if you touch on this topic again? It’s a minor thing but can be very painful to people who are bereaved by suicide.

  • 14 The Investor June 1, 2017, 3:11 pm

    @Corvid — Thanks for your thoughts. As I’ve mentioned above, while by no means an expert on this, I am wary of stepping too gingerly around these issues or catering too much for the sensitivities of those unfortunately at the thin end, as I think it can prevent us properly confronting some stark realities. However I take your point here about legality, and I think you make a fair suggestion. I’ve amended the copy above accordingly, hope it reads better for you now. All the best.

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