'E-mails, smartphones cause staff stress'

(REUTERS) - A top executive at France’s biggest telecommunications company, which is dealing with a spate of suicides, warned that the barrage of e-mails from smartphones and personal computers was stressing out employees.

While France Telecom Chief Financial Officer Gervais Pellissier did not directly blame suicides on round-the-clock e-mail, he said workers in 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 in an interview last Thursday.

France Telecom, which operates under the Orange brand, has come under public scrutiny after 24 workers committed suicide, and another 13 attempted to kill themselves since the start of last year.

Mr Pellissier said some employees were clearly feeling a lot of pressure due to the privatisation of France Telecom, but he added that this was compounded by new technologies that cause work to encroach increasingly on personal lives.

“When you were an average employee in a big corporation 15 years ago, you had no mobile phone or no PC at home. When you were back home, work was out,” he said.

Research in Motion’s popular BlackBerry has been dubbed CrackBerry in the US, where some users say they are addicted to checking e-mails.

Mr Pellissier said such practices may be taking a bigger toll on workers than has been acknowledged by his company or others. As a result, a fragile employee with difficulties would probably have more confusion with “more mixture between personal life and professional life than in the past”.

Global society issue

“That is probably something we’ve not undertaken, not only at France Telecom but, it’s more a global society issue, the impact of the new ways of working on personal behaviour,” Mr Pellissier said.

France Telecom Chief Executive Didier Lombard said earlier this month the company was adding surveillance and counselling services as the pace of suicides among employees had picked up. He has faced calls to quit after his deputy, Mr Louis-Pierre Wenes, 60, resigned over this issue on Monday.

One man had stabbed himself in the stomach during a staff meeting, while a woman threw herself out a window.

Mr Pellissier talked about stress caused by workers changing jobs, skills and locations as France Telecom recreates itself as a private company from a government agency.

More than 15,000 of its roughly 102,000 workers had big job changes in the last five years as a result of the privatisation, he said.

He said the company would have to do a lot in the coming weeks to help resolve the suicide problem.

“It’s a serious issue. We have to deal with it,” he said.