Are you driving your Employees to Suicide?

Of course not you say, but the appalling attitude and behaviour of the senior management at France Telecom did just that, and it shows the power management can have not only on the lives of employees, but also on their deaths.

For those not up to speed with this tragic case, I’ll let the BBC’s news channel describe what is happening, and why, from their report on June 18th2019.

‘The former chief executive of France Telecom and six other managers are to stand trial over a spate of suicides among their staff in the late 2000s.

Prosecutors have long claimed they presided over a culture of harassment at the firm that led at least 19 employees to kill themselves.

They are accused of “moral harassment”.

Ex-boss Didier Lombard and his fellow defendants deny their tough restructuring measures in 2006 were to blame for the subsequent loss of life.

The push for greater efficiency came two years after the company was privatised. Mr Lombard was trying to cut 22,000 jobs and retrain at least 10,000 workers.

“I’ll get them out one way or another, through the window or through the door,” he was quoted as telling senior managers in 2007.

Some were transferred away from their families or left behind when offices were moved, or assigned demeaning jobs.

From 2008 onwards, at least 19 members of staff took their own lives, 12 attempted suicide and eight others suffered from depression and related illnesses.

Whilst this is obviously an extreme and utterly callous example of corporate bullying, it goes to show the type of hold that leaders can exert on employees and how, as with France Telecom, the misuse of office and power can have a devastating effect on the individuals that work for you and their families. It is also a classic case of a complete lack of corporate governance at the top of this huge company. And the question has to be why did nobody speak up and stop it? Especially when a comment like “I’ll get them out one way or another, through the window or through the door,” is spoken in front of senior managers.

But then of course, history is littered with examples of people who should have known better, but chose to stand by and keep silent. Why? Because it’s easier to be on the inside of the gravy train than the outside and it takes a special kind of courageous person to stand up to a bullying culture and accept the impact it will have, not only on them, but also on their families. No such moral fibre was found in the France Telecom team.

The reason I highlight this extreme case is because work-related stress in the UK is the biggest single cause of working days lost to ill health. At 57% of the total working days lost (source: Health & Safety Executive), it dwarfs the absence caused by all other illnesses put together. In the last 12months, over 600,000 workers reported suffering from stress, depression or anxiety, caused by, or exacerbated by work.

The scale of the wellbeing opportunity

So how, as a director of a business, does minimising stress on your employees help your business. Well, apart from staying out of prison, research carried out by Deloitte showed the return on investment of workplace mental health interventions is overwhelmingly positive. The average return per £1 spent was £4.20 (with a range of between 40p and £9), and this has been supported by international academic literature in the form of metastudies.

According to ‘Thriving at Work: the Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers’, commissioned by the government. The cost of mental ill health to the Private Sector is a staggering £33bn to £42bn per year, an annual cost of between £1,205 and £1,560 per employee. This cost is for ALL employees, not just those who are ill. The highest cost of mental ill health is felt in Finance and Insurance, between £2,017 at the lower end of estimates, and £2,564 at the upper end for every single person employed in that sector. And the highest cost of poor mental health is not through absenteeism from work at £8bn per year, but through presenteeism at £17bn – £26bn per year.

Total cost of ill mental health to the private sector
(UK)

£33bn – £42bn
per year
Average return on workplace mental health intervention
(UK)

420%
Days lost due to work-related stress of total lost to ill-health
(UK)

57%

But outweighing all of the financial costs of poor mental health are the human costs to the individual and those who share their lives. Lack of sleep, panic attacks, difficulty in concentrating and low confidence can have a devastating impact on family and friends. And as the France Telecom example shows, the ultimate cost is in human life.

Identifying how your employees feel is therefore vital for a contemporary, forward looking and intelligent management team, who care about their employees. The trouble is how do you get past the standard ‘I’m fine’ response that passes for the norm whenever anyone asks how you are? The answer is to use more sensitive and modern information gathering techniques that bypass the ‘I’m fine’ response and get to the nub of how people are really feeling. At Truthsayers we use these techniques which, unlike traditional surveys, don’t ask any questions at all, so there’s no conscious bias or moderation in the answer, just an accurate reflection of how your employees really feel about working for you. With this information you can identify how mentally well your employees are, as well as identifying and tackling at an early stage, issues that might lead to future mental ill health problems.

After all a business without employees is just an empty space with machinery and desks, your employees are the hearts and minds of your business so look after them both if you want to succeed.