Suicide and stress in the workplace

Article published on May 21, 2008
Article published on May 21, 2008
Enslaved into the rhythm of work, are employees mere instruments of their jobs? Stress clogs up the cogs of any enterprise. What are the causes of this troubling phenomenon?

In February 2007, French vehicle manufacturer Renault announced its third employee suicide in less than six months. In a letter, the deceased cited stress from a recent job promotion as the reason for committing suicide. This is not an isolated incident. By May 2007, car manufacturer PSA Peugeot-Citroën faced three more suicides. This horrifying reality should be pre-empting new methods of management, or at least make some changes within the workforce. But what is actually getting done?

Where to begin?

The emergence of a liberal, anti-hierarchical management has sought to increasingly empower employees. However, it's also played an enormous role in stressful work environments. Certainly, companies' modes of organisation have significantly decreased the monotony of certain tasks. Whereas previously, tasks assigned to each employee were clearly defined, today, the employee faces a multitude of endless things to do. Because of high labour costs, employees are facing arduous hardships in dealing with additional responsibilities at the workplace.

Xavier de la Vega, who writes for the French journal Sciences Humaines, distinguishes two major reasons for stress at the workplace. The first is 'polyactivity', which occurs when tasks accumulate at work, eventually leaving the employee unable to know in which direction to turn next. In an organisation which produces goods, there's an intensification on the workload; employees are always expected to accomplish increasingly more and more, and eventually are made to feel smaller and smaller against the enormity of the tasks which lie ahead of them.

Never-ending mobile phone calls and avalanches of emails increase the level of stress on the nerves

Stress and other professionally associated illnesses are also largely tied to the use of certain tools on the job, especially information technologies. For example, studies on Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) show the definitive link between damaged wrists and the constant handling of computer mice (obviously more prominent in those employees who work in offices). In addition, information technology brings employees to the beck and call of real time communication devices; never-ending mobile phone calls and avalanches of emails obviously increase the level of stress on the nerves.

The Google case

What should society do to face all these problems? Sociologist Philippe Askenazy, whose study compares France with the United States in their levels of workplace health, thinks it's possible to reduce the number of professionally associated illnesses. At least, it seems to have already worked on the other side of the Atlantic. Results were achieved by introducing ever more regulations and by inciting businesses to take into account the cost of stress-related problems. Their accountability passes through a more severe legal arsenal that forces businesses to confront the many judicial consequences (and, therefore financial consequences) of employee suicides, which could be considered as workplace accidents.

It's possible to get the same results in Europe, including in France, if we accept severing mutual insurance systems, the basis of the French social protection system. The company has to be at the centre of it itself. 'On the microeconomic level, taking into account all the stressful situations and establishing preventative measures can be economically positive, as well as have a rapid return on investment,’ claims Christian Trontin, economist at the National Institute of Scientific Research (INRS). However, policies pursued by companies should also be supervised.

Google, for example, has put a seemingly attractive campaign into place to try to reduce stress with game rooms and sports. However, this method is merely a seductive facade; it only drives employees to further internalise things. New work relations keep a preponderant place in the lives of their workers, and could be harmful in terms of social relationships in the end.