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Working to live?


I have been feeling a little uneasy recently. One of the things that I’ve tried to do in my work is to help people become both more effective and more efficient. There have been two reasons for this: firstly, I believe that doing so, people’s lives will become easier and I see that as a good thing. Secondly, the more effective and efficient people are, the better their companies will be, providing continued employment, better goods and services and so on.Recent events in France caused me to question this whole philosophy.

Since the beginning of 2008, 23 employees of France Telecom, the country’s main telecommunications company, have killed themselves. According to the French unions involved, the suicides have been caused by a tougher management style implemented after the company’s privatisation in 1998 and that a “never-ending drive for efficiency is causing emotional havoc in the workforce.” The average suicide rate in the general population of France is 35 per 100,000 and France Telecom argues that the suicide rate amongst its workforce of 100,000 is not, therefore, statistically unusual. However, the situation has gotten so bad that the French Labour Minister has meet with the CEO of France Telecom to discuss the situation. The company seems to accept that it has some part to play in the suicides, because it has hired more counselling staff, is now talking with the unions about the situation and has suspended a series of internal job transfers.

I’ve written before that a job is not a hostage situation – we always have choices and that while we may need a job we don’t necessarily need the job we have right now; all that is still true. But what if your options are severely limited, perhaps due to your skill set, your personal circumstances or the general economic climate? We’ve all had experience of jobs that have felt like they are grinding us down, even though our friends may tell us “it’s only a job.” Could the working environment within an organisation get so bad as to drive its employees to suicide? Does the greater drive for efficiency and effectiveness just increase the pressure on employees? If we show people how to “get more done with less” (a popular phrase in my industry), are we inadvertently making their lives harder rather than easier?

Recent studies by the Aspen Institute found that when students enter business schools, they believe the purpose of an organisation is to develop goods and services for the benefit of society. When they leave, these future top-business leaders believe the purpose of an organisation is solely to “provide shareholder value”. In France, it looks very much like people are dying in this drive for shareholder value: managers and leaders everywhere – and those who train and develop them – must wake up to the consequences and implications of their actions and acknowledge that organisations are far more than "shareholder value" machines.

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