Suffering and suicide at work

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These last few months, the French media have reported copiously on the suicides of France Telecom employees (33 in 18 months, almost two per month). It's not the first time that the news has headlined cases of suicide at work or because of work. The same thing happened two years ago at Peugeot and Renault.

It is also important for revolutionaries to examine the question of suffering and suicide at work. In the first place, this is because everything concerning the conditions of life of the exploited class is one of their permanent preoccupations. But also, and above all, because the emergence and development of this phenomenon is a very expressive symptom of the state in which the capitalist system finds itself today - a state which with unprecedented urgency underlines the necessity to overthrow this system and replace it with a society capable of satisfying human needs.

The emergence of this phenomenon in France

Suicide at work is not an entirely new phenomenon because it's been known for a long time among farmers. A fundamental cause exists for that: in this profession the space between private and professional life is generally mixed up. The house of the farmer and the farm which is being worked on, are, the majority of the time, in the same immediate area.

What is new since the beginning of the 1990s is the appearance and increase of suicides at work in other sectors, in industry and above all the service sector. When someone kills themselves at home or outside of their work, it's not easy to prove that the principal cause of this gesture lies in suffering linked to work. This is what the bosses play on in order to avoid responsibility when the family of the victim tries to get their gesture recognised as work-related. On the other hand, when the suicide takes place at the place of work itself, avoidance of the issue by the bosses is more difficult. We should thus interpret suicide at work as the expression of a very clear message: "It's not because of sentimental break-up, a divorce or my ‘depressive nature' that I die, it's the bosses or the system that they represent which is responsible for my death".

The increase in the number of suicides at work or because of work thus shows the development of a much more massive phenomenon of which we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg: the increase of suffering at work.

Suffering at work is evidently not new: work-related sicknesses have existed for a long time, in fact since the industrial revolution which transformed human labour into a real hell for the majority of wage earners. From the beginning of the 19th century, socialist writers have denounced the conditions of work to which capital submits the human beings it exploits. That said, since this time and up to the end of the 20th century, suicide wasn't part of the response made by the exploited to suffering at work.

In fact, suicide is much more the result of mental, rather than physical suffering. But mental suffering isn't new either: bullying and humiliations on the part of all levels of bosses have also existed for a long time. But in the past, this suffering of the exploited wouldn't end up in suicide except in exceptional circumstances.

How is this phenomenon analysed by specialists?

Suicide has been studied for a long time, notably by the sociologist Durkheim at the end of the 19th century. Already, Durkheim had identified the social and not simply the individual roots of suicide: "If the individual gives in to the least shock of circumstances, it's because the state society finds itself in makes a victim quite ready for suicide."

Similarly, the studies of suffering at work, including its mental aspects, go back as far. That said, studies of suicides as a consequence of suffering at work are much more recent given the more recent development of this phenomenon. Several hypotheses have been advanced, and a certain number of facts have been established in order to explain the emergence of this phenomenon. We can particularly look at the reflections of Christophe Dejours, who is a psychiatrist, an ex-work doctor, lecturer and author of several celebrated books on the question (such as Souffrance en France: la banalisation de injustice sociale or Travail, usure mentale - Work, mental attrition).

Some hypotheses

1) The "centrality of work": work (understood not only as a means to earn a living but as a productive and creative activity beneficial to others) plays a central role in the mental health of each individual. From this, suffering in this sphere of life has consequences that are ultimately more dramatic than suffering coming out of the private or family sphere. Concretely, if someone is suffering in their family life then that has fewer repercussions in their life at work than the contrary.

2) The recognition of work and its quality from others: in a hierarchical society such as ours, this recognition evidently manifests itself in the consideration that one gets from the bosses and in the wages that one receives for the job (this can be called "vertical recognition"). But there exists another form of recognition that is ultimately more important for the workers in their daily lives: it's the recognition of their work by colleagues (called "horizontal recognition"). It is the sign that the worker is integrated into the community of "people at work" with whom one shares experiences and know-how, as well as the taste for "doing a job well-done". Even if workers are not liked by superiors or the boss because they won't conform to their demands, they can nevertheless maintain their equilibrium as long as comrades at work don't play the bosses' games and keep their confidence in others. On the other hand, everything is overturned if the confidence of other workers is lost.

Some facts

1) The growth of extra work: it's something which seems paradoxical because, with the development of new technologies allowing the automation of many tasks, some have announced "the end of work" or at least the possibility of significantly reducing the workload. For the last two decades, the contrary has been the case. The workload hasn't stopped increasing to such a point that, in a country like Japan, they've invented a new word for it, Karoshi, which specifies a sudden death (by cardiac crisis or cerebral vascular accidents) of subjects having no particular pathology but who are "killed at work" in the proper sense. It's a phenomenon that not only affects Japan even if it is more pronounced there. It has equally been observed in the United States and Western Europe.

The other manifestation of this weight of work which has necessitated the creation of a new word is "burn-out", which is a particular form of depression linked to exhaustion. It's an expressive term: the worker is reduced to a pile of cinders having had their energy burnt up.

2) The development of pathologies resulting from bullying and harassment.  These pathologies have been well studied today: depressive syndromes, memory trouble, spatial and temporal disorientation, sleep loss, persecution feelings, psychosomatic troubles (notably affecting the womb, glands, etc.).

Christophe Dejours analyses this phenomenon thus:

"Harassment at work is not new. It's as old as work itself. What is new are the pathologies. It's new because there is so much many more of them now and there were much fewer beforehand. Between harassment on one side, and the pathologies on the other, we must see how people at work have been made fragile by these manoeuvres of intimidation. This process of becoming more fragile can be analysed and the results are quite precise. It is linked to the destructuring of what are called the defensive resources, in particular collective defence and solidarity. It is the determinant element in the increase of pathologies. In other words, pathologies from harassment are, above all, pathologies of solitude." (Christophe Dejours, ‘Alienation et clinque du travail', Actuel Marx, no. 39).

"Twenty or thirty years ago, harassment and injustices existed, but there weren't suicides at work. Their appearance is linked to the destruction of solidarity between wage earners." (Interview with Christophe Dejours published in Le Monde, 14.08.09)

Here he touches on a very important element of mental suffering linked to work and which in great part explains the increase of suicides: the isolation of the worker.

... and some interpretations

How do the specialists understand this phenomenon of the isolation of workers?

To explain it Dejours accords a particular importance to the establishment these last two decades of individual performance-related evaluations.

"Individualised appraisals, when they are linked to contracts of objectives or a management of objectives, when centred on results or on profits, lead to the setting up of generalised competition between workers, even between services in the same firm, between sub-companies, branches, workshops, etc.

This competition, when it's associated with the threat of redundancy, leads to a profound transformation of relations at work. Relations at work are already degraded when they are more or less associated with bonuses. But when the appraisal is not coupled with benefits but with sanctions or threats of redundancy, its noxious effects become patent. Individualisation pushes towards everyman for himself, competition leading to disloyalty between colleagues; distrust is insinuated between the workers.

"The final result of the appraisal is the profound destruction of confidence, collectivity and solidarity. And, added to that, it wears down defensive resources against the pathological effects of suffering and of the constraints of work" (‘Alienation et clinique du travail').

He also underlines that one of the successes of these new measures of subordination lies in their passive acceptance by the majority of workers, notably in a growing climate of fear of losing one's job faced with increasing unemployment.

He considers that the establishment of these new methods corresponds to the triumph of liberal ideology during the last 20 years.

Dejours is also concerned with what he calls "ethical suffering": the fact that the workers, gripped in the vice of increasingly insupportable workloads and the necessity to show the realisation of untenable objectives fixed in advance for them, are led to do a bad job, and very often disapprove of the work they do, telemarketing for example. This is an ethical suffering which equally affects the teams who have to set up these new methods and who are being asked to turn themselves into torturers.

Finally, he notes that the question of the increase of suffering at work has been ignored in the claims put forward by the trade unions.

Our own analysis

What link can there be between these analyses of specialists (in this case, Christophe Dejours) and the vision of our organisation?

In fact the ICC can instantly recognise itself in these analyses even if, evidently, the point of departure is not identical. Christophe Dejours is first of all a doctor whose vocation is to care for sick people, in this case people who are sick through their work. But his intellectual rigour obliges him to go to the root of the pathologies he proposes to treat. For its part, the ICC is a revolutionary organisation which fights capitalism with the perspective of its overthrow by the class of wage workers.

But if one takes up each of the points he presents, one can see that they can be very well integrated into our own vision.

The "centrality of work"

It is one of the bases of the marxist analysis of society:

- the role of labour, that's to say the transformation of nature in the rise of the human species has been advanced by Engels, notably in his work ‘The role of labour in the transition of ape to man';

- relations of production, that's to say all of the links between human beings in the social production of their existence, constitute for marxism, the infrastructure of society; other  spheres of the latter, juridical relations, modes of thought, etc., depend, in the last instance, of these relations of production;

- Marx considered that in communist society, when labour is emancipated from the constraints of capitalist society which very often transforms it into a real calamity, it will become the primary need of humanity.

Recognition by others:

It is one the essential bases of solidarity and associated labour.

Solidarity is one of the fundamentals of human society, a characteristic which with the struggle of the proletariat assumes its most complete form, internationalism: solidarity is no longer manifested towards the family, members of the tribe or the nation, but towards the whole human species.

Associated labour supposes that one can count on one and all in the productive process, that one is mutually recognised. This has existed since the beginning of humanity, but in capitalism it takes on its greatest extension. It is really this socialisation of labour which makes communism necessary and possible.

The increasing workload

The ICC, with the whole of the marxist vision, has always considered that the progress of technology in no way allows, by itself, a reduction of the workload in the capitalist system. The "natural" tendency of this system is to take still more surplus value from wage labour. And even when there is a reduction in the working week (as was the case in France with the 35-hour's) there was an intensification of rotas, shifts and cuts in breaks, etc. It's a reality which is taking on even more violent forms with the aggravation of the crisis of capitalism which exacerbates the competition between capitalist enterprises and between states.

The loss of solidarity which leaves workers much more vulnerable faced with harassment and intimidation

This is a phenomenon that the ICC has analysed during the last two decades under two angles:

- the retreat in consciousness and combativity within the working class resulting from the collapse of the so-called "socialist" regimes in 1989 and the campaigns around the alleged "definitive victory of liberal capitalism" and the "end of the class struggle";

- the deleterious effects of the decomposition that capitalism engenders, notably "everyman for himself", "atomisation", the "destruction of relations on which all life in society is based" (‘Decomposition, final phase of the decadence of capitalism', International Review no. 62, 2nd quarter 1990).

These two factors greatly explain the fact that in the past twenty years capitalism has been able to introduce new methods of servitude without provoking a response from the working class.

Those who kill themselves because of their work are, in general, those who try to resist this growth of barbarity at the workplace. Contrary to many of their colleagues, they are not resigned to submitting to this increase in the workload, the bullying and contempt which is applied to their efforts to "do a good job". But as there is not yet any collective resistance, or sufficient solidarity between the workers, the resistance and revolt against injustice remains individual and isolated. The one and the other are both condemned to failure. And the ultimate consequence of this failure is suicide which is not only an act of despair but also a last cry of revolt against a system that has wiped the individual out. The fact that this revolt takes the form of self-destruction is, in the final count, only another expression of the nihilism invading the whole of capitalist society, itself on the road to self-destruction.

When the proletariat once again takes up its road of massive struggles, when solidarity returns to the proletariat's ranks, there will no longer be suicides at work.

Fabienne and Mg 1/3/10


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