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Health: Work, identity and the France Telecom trial

media Marie-France Hirigoyen is a psychiatrist and therapist who has written several books on mental health at work

What happens when your work changes dramatically without warning? For dozens of France Telecom employees during a restructuring in the mid-2000s, it led to suicide. A psychiatrist who treated several employees speaks about the impact of harsh management styles on employees, in France and elsewhere.

Psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen is recognised as an expert in workplace harassment or bullying. Her 1998 book coined the term “moral harassment”, which was incorporated into the French labour code in 2002.

She has been following the events at France Telecom, which was partially privatised in 2004, and facing enormous competition and technological change in the early 2000s came up with a plan to force out 22,000 of its 120,000 workforce. During that time, dozens of people committed suicide or tried to kill themselves. The company and high-level executives are currently on trial, for allegedly causing the suicides.

Hirigoyen says this is a lesson in what not to do as a company.

Spotlight on France Podcast:
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(Edited and condensed verison of interview that appears in the Spotlight on France podcast)

Marie-France Hirigoyen: I received France Telecom employees as patients at the time. They were technicians and suddenly they were told: now you have to sell subscriptions for mobile phones and things like that. Without no preparation. And they were not asked if they wanted to do it. They had to do it. This is moral harassment.

There is a confusion between a psycho-social risk and harassment. Harassment is a psycho-social risk, but it is specific. And the health consequences are different. Stress and burnout, versus harassment: Harassment is an attack on the person’s identity. When you are stressed, you know you have a lot of work to do, and it’s too much. You’re tired, but it is not an attack on your identity or your dignity.

Q: In France there has often been a coupling of identity and professional categories. How is work part of someone’s identity?

M-F H: It’s very important for the identity. In our world, everything is fluid, so when you are recognised in what you are doing in the workplace, it’s important for you to be able to say who you are. I am good at what I’m doing.

We have to be someone in society, part of a group. Before we had homogenous groups of workers, with unions representing them. Today we just have little groups of people at work. You are lonely, and you look for recognition somewhere.

Q: The events that led to the suicides at France Telecom happened about ten years ago. How have things changed in the French work culture since then?

M-F H: Since France Telecom, we have had more protections put in place, but at the same time management has become tougher and tougher. Because of the capitalist system, we need to be more competitive and there is more pressure on people. People accept it because they have no choice.

I do see that things are changing among young people. They don’t want this, they want a normal life. But it is still only a few, well-educated young people who are sure to find good jobs who can afford to speak up.

Q: What kind of impact will a verdict in the France Telecom trial have?

M-F H: I expect the court will rule that what happened was moral harassment, to send a message to other heads of companies. It is a symbol, saying this way of managing people is not possible.

This report was produced for the Spotlight on France podcast.

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