France's deadly office culture

After a spate of suicides among employees of France Telecom, French authorities have begun addressing a nationwide corporate tradition in which managers tend to be remote and imperious, and workers are treated as cogs.

A France Telecom phone booth is seen in front of the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, France, Thursday, September 29, 2005. The company reports its first-half results tomorrow. Photographer: Lucas Schifres/Bloomberg News.
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Francis Le Bras discovered he had become a corporate nobody when his name disappeared from the organisational chart on the wall of his Paris office.

In 2008, Mr Le Bras's employer, France Telecom, cut his job as a writer of software applications for Minitel, a pre-internet information service for telephone users. While Mr Le Bras, 56, stayed on the payroll, he had no job title, and he says he was shunned by his colleagues. "Suddenly I was nothing," says Mr Le Bras, who has been taking antidepressants while on long-term sick leave at his home in the Paris suburb of Guyancourt. "People didn't look at me. They didn't know I was there. I thought of suicide."

The support of his wife and three children saved him from adding his name to a dismal roster at France Telecom, the former state monopoly that is still 27 per cent owned by French taxpayers. Since January 2008, 34 employees of France Telecom have committed suicide, the company says. They killed themselves because of work-related stress, labour unions and relatives say. On September 15, four days after a 32-year-old France Telecom employee identified publicly only as Stephanie jumped to her death from an office window, The French president Nicolas Sarkozy's government became involved. The French labour minister Xavier Darcos ordered the chief executive of France Telecom, Didier Lombard, to meet with union representatives to find ways to reduce stress and detect potentially suicidal behaviour.

Those deaths have triggered a national debate about whether they are evidence of a wider malaise in French factories and offices. France may be the land of the 35-hour working week and the month-long summer holiday, yet it had a suicide rate of 17.6 per 100,000 people in 2005, the third-highest among the Group of Eight countries. Russia and Japan were first and second. Suicides at work are not limited to France Telecom. Three employees killed themselves within four months in late 2006 and early 2007 at the car maker Renault's technical development centre near Paris. In 2008, there were 12 suicides directly resulting from work-related stress in French banks, said the Syndicat National de la Banque et du Credit, a financial industry labour union.

France's remote, impersonal management culture creates tense, conflict-ridden workplaces, says Patrick Legeron, a psychiatrist and the chief executive of Stimulus, a Paris company that advises employers and unions on how to reduce job-related mental illness. "In France, executives are expected to have the right diplomas and be technically competent, rather than be any good at managing people," says Mr Legeron, who wrote a report for the labour ministry in 2008 to recommend ways to monitor workplace stress. "French managers relegate everything to do with human relations to second place."

France's 35-hour working week, in force for large companies since 2000 and for small businesses since 2002, raises the heat for employees with managers determined to make their financial targets, says Bernard Salengro, the president of the Syndicat des Medecins du Travail, the national association for doctors who conduct health checks on workers. "Employers are now trying to squeeze even more work out of their employees in order to get back the missing five hours," Dr Salengro says. "It lays the ground for the increase of stress and violence at work."

Even with reduced hours, France remains competitive. In 2008, it had the highest hourly productivity among the EU's largest economies, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported. Taking the US as a base of 100, France scored 98.2 for GDP per hour compared with 92.8 for Germany, 83.1 for the UK and 73 for Italy. At France Telecom, unions, workers and academics say the combination of global competition and French job protection rules helped create a brutal corporate culture, where unwanted staff such as Mr Le Bras were sidelined into menial jobs and even bullied into resigning. Two-thirds of France Telecom's 103,000-strong domestic workforce cannot be fired because they are classified as civil servants. The company has still reduced its payroll in France by about 15,000 since 2006.

"France Telecom used to live off voluntary departures, retirements and buying people out to shrink its payroll, but now they can't do it the old-fashioned way," says Bill Stewart, a professor of business administration at the American University of Paris and the former head of the economics department at the Lyon School of Management. "Managers are clearly under pressure to make their headcount numbers, but they can't easily get rid of people."

The cluster of suicides at France Telecom exceeds those reported at any other French company in recent years. While declining to speculate publicly about the cause of the suicides, Mr Lombard says he will introduce a programme for a more humane working environment this year. One in four of the company's domestic employees consider themselves "psychologically vulnerable", a survey for France Telecom in the wake of the suicides concluded.

"For me, it is unacceptable for some of our staff to feel stressed when they arrive at work," Mr Lombard, 67, said at a meeting on workplace conditions with union representatives in October. Estimates vary as to how many suicides in France are work-related. In 2008, private-sector employers reported 49 suicides stemming from "professional causes", a conclusion based on data compiled by the French National Health Insurance Fund for Salaried Employees. Dominique Huez, a doctor who has studied workplace depression, says the real figure may be as high as 3,000 deaths, or about 30 per cent of the total of suicides in 2007, the last year for which statistics are available.

Some of the blame for the tension inside French companies rests with an educational system that churns out technocrats incapable of leadership and teamwork, says William Dab, France's former director general of health. In 2008, Mr Dab wrote a government-commissioned report recommending that healthy management play a central role in business school programmes. "Our chief executives come out of a school system based on individual competition," says Mr Dab, now a professor at the Pasteur-Cnam School of Public Health in Paris. "They're the product of 10 years of education where it's been drilled into them that the guy at the desk next to them is a rival."

France's elite colleges, called "grandes ecoles", are largely to blame for the callous, imperious style of many managers, says Marie Peze, a clinical psychologist in Paris who specialises in work-related mental illnesses. Among France's 40 largest companies by market value, 29 chief executives are graduates of the five most prestigious colleges, which include the Ecole Polytechnique, the Ecole des Mines in Paris and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration in Strasbourg.

"Our technocracy, the elite of the French nation produced by these [colleges], have a sovereign contempt for ordinary employees," says Ms Peze, whose clinic, called Suffering and Work, treats about 900 patients annually. "As far as they are concerned, their workers know nothing." France Telecom's quest to compete globally is hindered by the country's stringent employment security provisions, says Philippe Francois, an analyst at Ifrap, a research group in Paris.

"The employment protection laws are a terrible handicap for French companies that must compete internationally," Mr Francois says. "Managers stop hiring people because they know that in a downturn they won't be able to fire them." It is not just France Telecom that is under pressure to introduce a more sympathetic corporate culture. Mr Darcos, the labour minister, has told about 2,500 French companies with more than 1,000 employees to hold talks with unions on how to reduce workplace stress. The government plans to publish next month the names of companies that have introduced workplace reforms and a list of those that have done nothing.

For Mr Le Bras, the France Telecom worker who contemplated suicide, any change in the corporate culture cannot come soon enough. After a sick leave, he says he is looking forward to returning to a new position as part of the team maintaining Minitel, the information service that has been overtaken by online search engines. While that may help Mr Le Bras regain his self-confidence, it will do little to keep his company globally competitive. * Bloomberg

Ludovic Nonclercq, a software engineer at France Telecom, says his own seemingly safe position proved more of a curse than a blessing. In 2008, his managers criticised his work writing billing systems for customers in developing countries. Mr Nonclercq, 42, says he was told that his job no longer existed, and while he was not fired, it became clear to him that there was no reason to go to the office. He sank into depression and felt so humiliated that he once burst into tears at the office at a meeting with human resources. The software engineer says he visualised himself dangling from the electrical wires that run along an alley behind his two-storey house in Melun, south-east of Paris. His doctor prescribed antidepressants and put him on sick leave. Mr Nonclercq says France Telecom does not accept his sickness as work-related. He says that France's labour protection measures may have contributed to his woes. His mental health might have been better if he had simply been fired, he says. "Companies can't fire employees, so they brutalise them instead," says Mr Nonclercq, who is retraining as a carpenter. "And because jobs are so protected, they're hard to get, and losing them is a catastrophe." France Telecom declined to comment on any individual employee's situation.

Michel, a former senior engineer at Electricite de France (EDF) who asked that his surname not be used, is another example of a worker in medical-related limbo. During a meeting with a reporter at his home in a Paris suburb, Michel recalled how he transferred to EDF's human resources department in 2004 to a position advising employees who were looking for other jobs in the company. Two years later, a new manager demoted Michel to doing secretarial work. The manager also sent him an e-mail outlining a set of alleged shortcomings, he says. Since 2007, Michel has been on medication and has taken permanent sick leave, and he now leaves home only to see his doctor. He says he has tried to kill himself three times. "Currently, my state of mind is such that if I went back to work, I'd throw myself under a train," he says, wiping tears away with a tissue. More than two years after he left work, he still draws his full annual salary. EDF is one of about 150 large and mid-sized French companies that subscribe to a 24-hour, year-round telephone hotline for employees with work-related psychiatric problems.