Cornell study looked at mental health lessons U.S. companies can learn from tragedy

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When France Telecom, one of Europe’s largest mobile network operators, announced sweeping organizational changes in 2007, tens of thousands of employees saw their jobs arbitrarily downsized. In the wake of those developments, a staggering 35 people committed suicide. 

Now, researchers at Cornell University have examined the part French workers’ unions played in the aftermath of these events, and the lessons American companies can learn to avoid anything like this from happening again. 

By analytically documenting how detrimental the organizational restructuring was to France Telecom’s employees, the unions were able to shift the narrative surrounding the story towards the importance of mental health in the workplace.  

When news of these events first broke in 2009, the unions were prepared for the subsequent media attention with a carefully prepared message: these tragedies were not a bizarre coincidence or random event, they were directly caused by the careless and cruel leadership at France Telecom. The unions were able to legitimize their assertions using employee feedback, surveys, and other pieces of data that documented just how harsh the day-to-day life of a France Telecom employee was at the time.

Thanks to their thorough response in the aftermath, France Telecom’s labor unions were granted a more formal role in assessing how the company treats its employees. With greater power, the labor unions have since expanded their understanding of just how hard “employment restructuring” can be on employees.

Perhaps even more importantly, the unions have opened up a much more substantive dialogue between the company and its workers, one in which the employees have a say in important decisions that will affect their jobs. This communicative strategy is becoming more and more common in European firms and can be characterized as prioritizing employees’ well being on the same level as profitability. 

Moreover, the information the unions provided to a Paris court helped in the groundbreaking decision just this past December that numerous former France Telecom executives were guilty of “collective moral harassment.”  

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the research team at Cornell sees similarities between France Telecom’s harmful conduct over a decade ago and many current-day American companies’ edicts to employees to work longer hours. There’s an underlying, almost passive-aggressive, precedent in countless U.S. offices that if an employee isn’t going “above and beyond” the duties outlined in their job description, they are expendable, no matter how skilled they may or may not be at their job.

The study’s authors believe that what happened at France Telecom should serve as a sobering reminder to U.S. companies that it’s vital to take care of their employees and on more than just a monetary level. Earning a great salary is fantastic, but if you’re too stressed and burnt out to enjoy that income, it’s a self-defeating and potentially self-harming exercise. Similarly, more U.S. unions should take a page from the French playbook and start proactively documenting employee burnout, stress, and psychological exhaustion.

Virginia Doellgast, the study’s main author and an associate professor of comparative employment relations in Cornell University’s ILR School, recently collaborated with the Communications Workers of America on a new employee questionnaire. This survey is designed to measure employees’ stress, burnout, medication use, sleep issues, repetitive work or strain-related injuries, and overall fears of outsourcing, downsizing, or termination.

Overwork culture is so common in the United States, many people don’t realize that working until 8 o’clock each night, answering emails in bed, and constant job-related stress aren’t habits that should be normalized. 

“One lesson for U.S. unions is that change starts by getting workers to understand that stress-related problems are widespread and to mobilize around the demand for good, healthy jobs,” she comments in a press release. “Also, real power comes from communicating these issues to the public and to policymakers. Companies are more likely to prioritize worker health when they fear losing customers, and when they fear fines and jail time for their top executives.”

A successful career certainly takes work, and in many scenarios, putting in that extra bit of effort is definitely a good idea. That being said, there’s a big difference between doing one’s best and being pressured by management to work unhealthy hours or take on far too much responsibility for any one person.

“Does the company just have a responsibility to its shareholders, or does it have a responsibility to its other stakeholders, which include its workers?” Ms. Doellgast concludes. “This case shows the critical role of unions in making the case for this ‘stakeholder’ view of the firm: Companies are part of society, and managers should make sure they’re not killing their employees to make short-term profits.”

The full study can be found here, published in Socio-Economic Review.