Edit: Elvira Krithari
The “Ten Commandments” for the cheerful worker – the proposal of a (former) regional director of the My Market supermarket chain – went viralin February-March 2019 in Greece, as if it were a customary practice which went beyond the usual rules of the domestic labor market.
In reality, for a large number of employees, psychological pressure is a daily experience, and they don’t always realize that they have the right to report it.
The extreme effects of this kind of psychological stress call to mind the dozens of suicides at France Telecom, which reached almost epidemic proportions in 2008-2009, a period when the French company was undertaking restructuring measures (sic), which included thousands of job cuts, and intolerable pressure on employees to improve their performance.
According to media reports, former CEO Didier Lombard and six France Telecom executives are to stand trial for being responsible for 19 of the suicides.
Christina Karakioulafi, Assistant Professor of Sociology of Labor Relations at the University of Crete, tells Solomon MAG that suicides at France Telecom largely confirmed the findings of previous investigations. According to these inquiries, the suicides are linked to the “forced transfer of thousands of employees to other workplaces and to other jobs, the discontinuing of certain occupations, the vocational retraining of workers, private economic evaluation criteria, the introduction of a customer-centered approach, the redevelopment of workplaces, stress management,” etc.
Respectively, smaller-scale incidents were recorded in other large companies in France, with more than three suicides at Renault from 2006-2007.
“Because of the above, the French trade unions persisted, among other things, in the creation of structures for psychological support,” notes Ms Karakioulafi. Because this seems possible only in the very distant future, we wondered about the situation at OTE, (Greece’s “France Telecom”) which has gone through respective stages of privatization: from the OTE group with 15,000 employees, the Greek government has been left with a minimum share capital.
ΟΤΕ’s psychological support hotline for employees
“Since the beginning of the year, most likely as a result of a serious incident at OTE’s Victoria Square building, OTE management implemented (with much fanfare) a telephone hotline called ‘Next To You’ – for the psychological support of its employees,” Aris Alexiou, President of the OTE Higher Education Workers’ Union (EETE – OTE) tells Solomon MAG.
“The employers, fearing that events which occurred at France Telecom may happen here too, took precautions, as it were – knowing that the pressure they put on workers is intensifying,” says Mr Alexiou. He adds that the difference between the My Market memo where the regional director’s words provoked a backlash – is that at OTE, the executive directors are careful not to leave any written traces of psychological stress.
“Intimidation efforts are being carried out carefully, old employees are invited to come in for personal meetings, where they are asked to leave the company by voluntary retirement (the last ‘benefits package’ of its kind ended in March 2019),” he explains. The aim, according to Mr. Alexiou, is to gradually replace the old staff (whose wage is considered “expensive”) with new and more flexible workers whose wages are at the €650 range, signaling that OTE is transforming into a different kind of company.
The “management by stress” tactic, which Ms Karakioulafi mentioned, can also be found at OTE, as the employee representative argues: “the philosophy of the business has changed radically in relation to the period of public sector controls and audits. For example, technicians are forced, pressured, to sell services when they are dispatched to repair faulty lines at a customer’s home.”
Harassment, shouting and pills for alleviating stress: daily life for workers at call centers
In recent years, workers cared about more “material” and immediate needs (finding employment, wage rights, preserving acquired rights), thus neglecting the major issue of the psychosocial impact of the job itself. The opposite is true with unemployment, where the consequences have been discussed extensively as they are more directly visible.
“In industrial accidents in the primary and manufacturing sector it is easy to ascertain that they are caused by working conditions, non-compliance with health and safety rules, etc. However, in the service sector, the devastating effects of psychological conditions are not as easy to record,” notes Ms. Karakioulafi.
A typical example is the various call centers where, according to Ms Karakioulafi, “all the elements of psychological ill-treatment of employees coincide: precariousness, customer-oriented approach, aggressive clients, constant pressure to achieve goals, offensive behavior.”
“Why did you take such a long bathroom break, why did you go on lunch break without permission?” – these are just an example the daily questions by managers of the call centers of large banks where the working conditions are unbearable according to N.M., who, like most employees at call centers, is a “rented worker”.
“There’s a lot of pressure, we’re stressed out about even our basic needs, like having a drink of water or taking a bathroom break. Only after the association (sydaptt.org) was set up for the “rented workers” at banks, did some of the bullying stop, and they started to implement break times,” the employee adds.
However, in workplaces where unions have not been created, things are even worse: “six continuous hours at your computer, without a break, without air conditioning, without the right to take a cigarette break,” reports L.M. referring to his workplace as “the galley” – he’s employed by a television station’s telemarketing department: “The supervisor has told us to leave if we don’t like it, while management swears and shouts at staff members on a daily basis. When the labor inspection came, the doors were shut and we were invisible. Also, we’re almost never paid on time. ‘If the sales are low, we don’t care if you’re not paid on time’ they tell us,” he reports.
L.M. also worked at a cable-TV call center for €370 net per month. At that job, the threats were aimed at vacation time – management said that if the expected sales results were not achieved, vacation time would be cut. “The ‘leaders’, as they referred to them, shouted at us, and even used bells to wake us up, as if we were animals, they wouldn’t let us talk to the person sitting at the next desk. They only saw numbers, the goals we needed to achieve, so they could get their bonus,” he says.
G.L., another employee at the call center of a large bank, reports that there were incidents in which workers had requested a blood pressure monitor or tried to contact a doctor during working hours. As G.L. describes: “The pressure is unbearable, the anxiety wears on you, you end up being rude to the customer because of the urgency to finish the call and start the next one because you’ve’ been told you have to take about 100 calls a day, meaning 15 calls hour, while the rules for break times are not followed. (…) They’ve also taken away ‘back office’ time, that is, time for the employees to resolve any questions with supervisors, as it was considered counterproductive. In one of the most typical incidents, the leader was shouting so loudly at an employee, that the customer I was speaking to could hear it, so I could not even do my job, let alone the employee who was victimized in this way. Leaders do not realize that their unprofessional behavior makes us less efficient. How can you work – with blood pressure pills on hand? Because I’ve seen people in this situation.”
According to a study by INE-GSEE in 2017, work-related stress decreases productivity by 80%, while 50% of the victims of work-related psychological abuse report that they suffer from severe anxiety.
A suicide in Greece that was swept under the rug
In France, due to the suicides that took place, “there has been a systematic study on linking working conditions with the consequences,” notes Ms Karakioulafi.
The decision of the Versailles Court of Appeal in 2011, which judged in favor of the relatives of one of the deceased, essentially played an important role in recognizing the suicide as a work-related accident.
In Greece, few suicides have been reported that are linked to abusive behavior by employers, supervisors and/or colleagues. “We don’t have a clear picture for Greece, because the awareness just isn’t there,” Ms Karakioulafi points out.
However in 2014, the suicide of 49-year-old Stefanos Valavanis, an employee at the Praktiker store in Egaleo, did receive publicity, as many people mobilized and protested. “He was being pressured to resign after an incident that resulted in some vague accusations of suspicion of theft,” K. Diamantis, member of the Board of Directors of the business union, told Solomon MAG. He, along with the employees of that particular store, paid for the funeral expenses of their colleague.
“This kind of pressure is not a rare phenomenon, but at that time the pressure had peaked due to a change in ownership (against the background of a bankruptcy risk of the parent company), but also by an attempt to make workers accept individual employment contracts,” he adds. The company, following Solomon MAG’s communication, was only content to say that they considered these untrue and refused to comment further.
As Mr Diamantis reports, he filed a statement with the police, but he was never summoned by the prosecutor and the case was archived.
What can workers do?
All the issues above are mentioned in the international bibliography, and can be summed up in one word: “mobbing” (in other words: labor abuse, moral harassment in the workplace, psychological violence, labor intimidation, psychological terrorism).
Panagiotis Boubouxeropoulos, lawyer (and Doctor of Law from Athens University Law School), who has been more involved in this issue than anyone else in Greece, reports to Solomon MAG that there is a case of a worker who suffered a heart attack, which was attributed to work-related anxiety.
“The legislative framework”, Mr. Boubouxeropoulos says, “is not insufficient, especially after the addition to the Penal Code of a bullying provision on the Yakoumakis case, but it is often difficult to link the health consequences of a worker to the psychological pressure in the workplace. Nevertheless, Greek case law has many decisions to make regarding incidents that have roots in this type of moral harassment.”
Vassilis Traianopoulos, supervisor of Special Inspectors of the Labor Inspection Corps (SEPE), has an overview of the issue due to his many years of experience. “Employees usually denounce verbal insults, their work being undervalued, and discredits to their personality only when there is abuse of other ‘basic’ labor rights (such as a reduction in earnings) and not as separate incidents,” he says.
“However, an employee may regard such behaviors as a ‘unilateral detrimental change’ and demand redundancy compensation, even if he claims a violation of the principle of equal treatment, as well as for individual constitutional offenses of the penal code, such as xenophobia, libel, extortion, etc,” says Traianopoulos. “He may also file an action for damages which caused him to suffer moral and material harm or to file an action for annulment of the termination of the contract for reasons of resentment, revenge or abuse of the employee.”
According to the Greek Constitution (article 2, par. 1 and article 5, par. 1), “the employer has an obligation to protect the personality of the employee, which derives from constitutional provisions. This protection is complete, covering all the manifestations of the personality of the worker, that is, physical, mental, and moral,” he adds.
In practice, however, especially in the impersonal environment of large enterprises and workplaces, employees seem totally unprotected against humiliating behaviors and psychological violence.
“Trade unions should be playing a key role here ” Ms. Karakioulafi notes, “Workers should keep in mind that these tactics of intimidation and pressure in the workplace are not isolated cases, as some might have you believe, but this is a social phenomenon of threatening proportions,” she concludes.
And we add that the issue has disastrous consequences on physical and mental health of employees, their family and social environment and the quality of working life.