Exec: Email is causing killer stress

A top business executive has blamed the massive volume of work-related emails, including on smartphones, for the stress on workers today.

The executive was speaking out at France's biggest telecommunications company, France Telecom, which is dealing with a spate of suicides many in the company have blamed on excessive work stress.

Chief Financial Officer Gervais Pellissier told Reuters that workers in all big companies are under more pressure in the age of the BlackBerry.

"Today for people working in business, whatever the level, whether they are CEO or even first- or second-rank level employees, they are always connected," he told Reuters.

France Telecom SA was mobilising all 20,000 of its managers in an effort to respond to a string of 23 employee suicides that unions blame partly on layoffs and restructuring at the telecommunications giant.

The latest suicide, and the one to spark top-level concern, was that of a 32-year-old woman who threw herself out a fourth-floor window of her office building in northwest Paris.

The woman worked in the debt-collection service of the company's Orange subsidiary, and had been involved in discussions on restructuring.

Not all the France Telecom suicides were job-related and it wasn't immediately clear if the total of 23 over 18 months was more than would be expected normally in a population of 100,000, the size of the company's French work force.

The French suicide rate was 15 per 100,000 people in the entire French population in 2004, the latest available year of data.

France Telecom has nonetheless announced a raft of measures in response to the suicides, including suspending around 500 employee transfers that are a part of an ongoing reorganisation.

Management has asked employees to watch out for signs of depression and suicidal tendencies among colleagues.

On Monday the company's head of human resources held a conference call with France Telecom's 20,000 managers, who were to hold meetings with all employees.

"There will be a clear message to all the managers to quickly organise local team meetings to explain what happened and what's being done, and to make sure that if there are problems they can be discussed," said company spokesman Sebastien Audra.

France Telecom employees also held a moment of silence on Monday in honour of those who have committed suicide.

Audra said no executives were available to be interviewed on the suicides.

Unions say some of the suicides are linked to working conditions and have demanded that France Telecom halt restructuring measures that have seen around 22,000 jobs eliminated out of 100,000 in France between 2006 and 2008.

Francois Chereque, head of the French union CFDT, called for France Telecom to halt ongoing restructuring and said the suicides were more than just "personal dramas."

"We know that suicides are always a result of number of personal difficulties. But to carry it out in the workplace is ... a signal that there is a problem directly related to the place," Chereque said on French television station LCI.

The suicides come as French workers across several sectors are suffering fallout from the global financial crisis, and seeing widespread layoffs and other cutbacks.

The French government, which still owns around 13 per cent of France Telecom, has been aware of the problem of workplace suicides for some time.

Last year, after a series of suicides at carmaker Renault, the then-labour minister pledged to create a special government suicide monitoring agency. The current Labour Minister Xavier Darcos is to meet on Tuesday with France Telecom's chief executive to discuss the problem.

The 22nd suicide among France Telecom employees occurred Aug. 29, when a 53-year-old technician in charge of certifying high-speed internet transmission fittings was found dead in his bed in Brittany.

His sister Veronique was quoted in Le Parisien as saying he left a letter to family and friends that said there was "total disorganisation" at France Telecom and that the company and job were responsible for his suicide.

According to Le Monde, the management had asked him to improve his behaviour.

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