Tuesday, 6 October 2009

When what happens at work becomes a life and death affair

France Telecom’s deputy CEO resigned yesterday after considerable criticism of the company over its handling of a spate of suicides by its employees.

There has been a worrying number of suicides by employees in France Telecom. More than 20 of them over the last 18 months. While suicides are often triggered by a complex set of issues, work related stress seems to have been a major cause of them.

Its an incredibly sad story , but a reflection of the modern day work environment. France Telecom has been brutally restructuring. Some 20,000 people have lost their jobs in the last three years. Sudden staff transfers from one place to another seems to have been regular. The management culture also does not seem to have been supportive.

Painful decisions involving the staff have become inevitable in modern day business. In the sanitized environment of the boardroom, the decision appears logical. Tough choices have to be made. The staff affected become a faceless mass and often just a number. But, on the ground, each and every individual affected is a human being. With a warm heart beating. These decisions made thousands of miles away and which the individual affected can barely understand the logic of, have enormous impacts on the lives of people and their families. Unfortunately, for a few, like what has happened in France Telecom, it ends in a suicide.

There is a huge need for support for people being affected by the turmoils in the business world. Companies have an obligation to help their people by arranging for support. Tough decisions are probably unavoidable, but the least a company can do is to offer support, help and advice – not the standard rubbish companies do to fulfill the minimum statutory obligations. Sending a termination notice by email, must be made an offence punishable by imprisonment. Support and help groups are probably needed manifold to be able to stand by pained souls in their hour of need. If we are to call ourselves a civilized society, that is.

Imagine this scene at a meeting in one of France Telecom’s offices last month. In a management meeting, in full view of his colleagues, a man in his 50s stabbed himself. Fortunately he was immediately rushed to hospital and survived. But what must be driving a normal man to do something like this ?

Managers of the world, think about this. Next time painful decisions are made affecting people, remember this incident. Your hard decision may be inevitable, but can you do it in the softest manner possible. Or do you want to have blood on your hands ?


A journey called Life said...

this was one of the most shocking and saddest pieces ofnews i read in recent times.. and i wondered just what drove these people to throw away a life for a company that obviously did not care much about them.. u r right when u say, some hard decisions need to be conveyed in the right way..

DA said...

While the France Telecom case sounds particularly egregious this is a wake up call for all companies. At our university, they increase the number of psychologists and help lines round the clock during exam week to help student cope with the sudden increase in stress and so institutionalizing such professional help at times of extreme stress may be one way to deal with it. But then maybe it is also time for all of us to take individual responsibility to treat people with the compassion that we'd want shown to us - the boss, the coworker, the wife, the brother, the friend, all of us... and while you highlight some particularly distressing outcomes, people are going through a lot these days and we should not forget to be just more human - unfortunately that's not something that can be made into law.

Sandhya Sriram said...

Restructuring is a part of an evolution of any organization. But then, the human element in the restructuring is very essential. when the office i was working for closed down, and i was part of the restructuring team, every individual had a story to tell, every heart had a unfulfilled aspiration. there is definitely disatisfaction in every restructuring. there is a reconciliation process which both the company and the employee has to go through. but then it is very important to handle this very sensitively and with a human touch. you may not be able to give the individual what he wants but need to give him what he can accept.

Srivats said...

Thats incredibly sad story for sure, but on the other hand it also shows how fragile we have become. I completely agree with your view about taking soft manners on hard decisions, yet the responsibility of life depends on the individual as well isnt ? may be the company can promote the wellbeing and strong mind set or whatever program they can offer to creat more powerful willed employees.

Anonymous said...

That is a real real sad story!!

I have a serious doubt, Ramesh: Can business and emotion co-exist? If so, how much can each other tolerate one another??

WagonR said...

Very few (we can number the companies in India) companies have this element of human touch to such tough decisions. As Athivas pointed out above, business and emotion can never co-exist. In today's competitive world you have to be on top of things to be there in the top rankings. I share the view of having a human touch to such tough decision and make sure that the management carry the people's sentiments to a larger extent towards the exit period.

Deepa said...

In fact, such incidents occur as a result of work pressures as well. In one of the top ranking IT companies in India, a guy had killed his old parents and himself over some heated agruement, after returning home from office. In this incident however, I would agree with Srivats, as to how fragile we have become!

Coming back to your blog, there is so much more that can be done and should be done! Compassion is never out of place, anywhere!

kiwibloke said...

Do we live to work or work to live? While the France Telecom story is indeed sad, look at it from the manager's perspective - so many stakeholders expectations to meet - His/her Board/ shareholders want to maximize returns,employees want certainty (which is incredibly difficult in trying times) the Govt wants every i dotted and t crossed in 'disestablishment' of jobs process and finally the manager's own rational vs. emotional battle. Having been a part of atleast 5 restructures (with one on the wrong side!) the sadness of seeing your team go from a manager's perspective is incredibly difficult to describe. Have a heart for those seemingly heartless monster managers who administer these restructures!

exkalibur666 said...

I think the basic problem is related to unrealistic expectations and rates of growth. As a society we should settle for a responsible and sustainable rate of growth / profits / returns. We all have to be aware of the social costs. Having said that, I think the french demanding a 35 hr work week while many asian societies working a lot more is bound to have its repurcussions. It is the survival of the fittest, theory of natural selection at work all over again..

Anonymous said...

Everyone falls - no doubt about it. But if one falls on a soft bed, one can get up and go on to do better things than fall on a hard surface and shatter. In times of trouble, we should atleast have the sense to go look for our soft bed.

And yes, its time we have had more humane bosses around.

Ramesh said...

@AJCL - Sad indeed. whatever happens, the extreme step is unwarranted and yet people do it.

@DA - Completely agree. The onus is on each one of us to be more humane - its not the law which can do this.

@Sandhya - Beautiful statement - you may not be able to give the individual what he wants but need to give him what he can accept. Sums it up perfectly

@Sri - Oh yes we are sometimes fragile and must own up to indivdual responsibility. But sometimes when you are older, vulnerable and lose your job with a family to support, its really really tough.

@athivas. Absolutely - business and emotion can coexist. Business is just another field of human endeavour and the same positive and negative sides of humans manifest themselves there too. This is a sad story, but equally there are millions of hearwarming stories in business.

Ramesh said...

@Wagon R - Actually many companies do display great maturity in such things. I actually think its a shade better in India. But when the pressure of business gets to people unreasonably, sometimes crazy stuff happen.

@Deepa - Stress at work is sometimes high, but its no different from the normal stresses of life. The extreme step is never warranted. But the normal stresses get multiplied manifold in difficult times such as this. A major trigger is massive job losses.

@kiwi - Trust you to present the other side of the coin brilliantly. Of course, the manager is a squashed from all sides. I know what you went through, but you did all that with grace and care. That's all I am arguing for. And I equally press for managers to be supported through this as well - I know that firing somebody is the shittiest job on earth.

@exkalibur - You make a very valid point. Maybe expectations are too much and result in big discontinuities. And equally true that what is extreme pressure in some societies may be normal stuff in others. After seeing school children in South Korea, I am willing to accept that the word stress must not be in the dictionary in any other country.

@thoughtful train - How wonderfully put in inimitable thoughtful train style. The soft bed is what is needed.

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