How accountable should a company and its leaders be when a work environment is so toxic and emotionally taxing that it leads to a widespread mental health crisis among employees?
That question is at the heart of a trial that began in Paris today, where former executives of a French telecom company are facing charges connected to 19 suicides and 12 attempted suicides that occurred under their watch, the Associated Press reports.
The incidents occurred between 2007 and 2010, when the multinational company known at the time as France Télécom was downsizing as part of a major restructuring. The firm, renamed Orange in 2013, today employs 151,000 people.
An employee union representative says the company used “social violence as a method of management” during its reorganization a decade ago, according to France24. Because head executives were unable to lay off thousands of protected workers, they instead allegedly bullied them by closing job sites, forcing employees to change jobs, tracking employees movements, including bathroom breaks, and saddling employees with unbearable workloads, the union argues.
Former CEO Didier Lombard is now on trial along with six other executives, including the former head of human resources, on charges of “moral harassment,” which is defined in French labor law as “repeated acts having as their object or effect a deterioration of an employee’s working conditions,” in ways that are likely to infringe on a worker’s rights or dignity, alter their physical or mental health, or compromise their promotion.
Those found guilty of moral harassment can face one year of prison and fines. The company itself is also facing charges, which could lead to additional payouts.
Several news outlets reported even higher rates of suicides during the period in question. For example, a New York Times article from April 2010, citing the company, said there had been more than 40 suicides reported since the start of 2008 involving people who had worked for France Télécom.
Not all of the cases would have been directly related to work, but some of the suicides and attempts in question took place at the company’s offices, and many employees left notes explaining that the stresses of their jobs pushed them to a breaking point.
Before stepping down in 2011, Lombard had implied that the suicides were a “fashion” or “trend,” a comment for which he has since apologized.
Psychologists have established a connection between reactive depression and extremely toxic work conditions. Beyond the chemical and physiological environment, social conditions can have a profound effect on employees. Those who face little autonomy, long hours, and sustained stress are at the highest risk of developing mood disorders, especially when social support is lacking.
The trial is taking place against a backdrop of social unrest more broadly in France, where the “yellow vest movement” has led to massive public demonstrations protesting several government policies, including a reduction in the number of state-employed civil servants. Orange, formerly a state-owned company, was partially privatized starting in the 1990s. The government remains a sizable shareholder.