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.
A France Telecom phone booth located at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Work-related stress has been blamed for the unusually high number of suicides at the company.

France's deadly office culture



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.

The bio

Who inspires you?

I am in awe of the remarkable women in the Arab region, both big and small, pushing boundaries and becoming role models for generations. Emily Nasrallah was a writer, journalist, teacher and women’s rights activist

How do you relax?

Yoga relaxes me and helps me relieve tension, especially now when we’re practically chained to laptops and desks. I enjoy learning more about music and the history of famous music bands and genres.

What is favourite book?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - I think I've read it more than 7 times

What is your favourite Arabic film?

Hala2 Lawen (Translation: Where Do We Go Now?) by Nadine Labaki

What is favourite English film?

Mamma Mia

Best piece of advice to someone looking for a career at Google?

If you’re interested in a career at Google, deep dive into the different career paths and pinpoint the space you want to join. When you know your space, you’re likely to identify the skills you need to develop.  

 

The alternatives

• Founded in 2014, Telr is a payment aggregator and gateway with an office in Silicon Oasis. It’s e-commerce entry plan costs Dh349 monthly (plus VAT). QR codes direct customers to an online payment page and merchants can generate payments through messaging apps.

• Business Bay’s Pallapay claims 40,000-plus active merchants who can invoice customers and receive payment by card. Fees range from 1.99 per cent plus Dh1 per transaction depending on payment method and location, such as online or via UAE mobile.

• Tap started in May 2013 in Kuwait, allowing Middle East businesses to bill, accept, receive and make payments online “easier, faster and smoother” via goSell and goCollect. It supports more than 10,000 merchants. Monthly fees range from US$65-100, plus card charges of 2.75-3.75 per cent and Dh1.2 per sale.

2checkout’s “all-in-one payment gateway and merchant account” accepts payments in 200-plus markets for 2.4-3.9 per cent, plus a Dh1.2-Dh1.8 currency conversion charge. The US provider processes online shop and mobile transactions and has 17,000-plus active digital commerce users.

• PayPal is probably the best-known online goods payment method - usually used for eBay purchases -  but can be used to receive funds, providing everyone’s signed up. Costs from 2.9 per cent plus Dh1.2 per transaction.

Explainer: Tanween Design Programme

Non-profit arts studio Tashkeel launched this annual initiative with the intention of supporting budding designers in the UAE. This year, three talents were chosen from hundreds of applicants to be a part of the sixth creative development programme. These are architect Abdulla Al Mulla, interior designer Lana El Samman and graphic designer Yara Habib.

The trio have been guided by experts from the industry over the course of nine months, as they developed their own products that merge their unique styles with traditional elements of Emirati design. This includes laboratory sessions, experimental and collaborative practice, investigation of new business models and evaluation.

It is led by British contemporary design project specialist Helen Voce and mentor Kevin Badni, and offers participants access to experts from across the world, including the likes of UK designer Gareth Neal and multidisciplinary designer and entrepreneur, Sheikh Salem Al Qassimi.

The final pieces are being revealed in a worldwide limited-edition release on the first day of Downtown Designs at Dubai Design Week 2019. Tashkeel will be at stand E31 at the exhibition.

Lisa Ball-Lechgar, deputy director of Tashkeel, said: “The diversity and calibre of the applicants this year … is reflective of the dynamic change that the UAE art and design industry is witnessing, with young creators resolute in making their bold design ideas a reality.”

SPEC SHEET

Processor: Apple M2, 8-core GPU, 10-core CPU, 16-core Neural Engine

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I/O: Thunderbolt 3 (2), 3.5mm audio; Touch Bar with Touch ID

Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0

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Camera: 720p FaceTime HD

Video: Support for HDR with Dolby Vision, HDR10, ProRes

Audio: Stereo speakers with HDR, wide stereo, Spatial Audio support, Dolby support

In the box: MacBook Pro, 67W power adapter, USB-C cable

Price: From Dh5,499

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Klipit

Started: 2022

Founders: Venkat Reddy, Mohammed Al Bulooki, Bilal Merchant, Asif Ahmed, Ovais Merchant

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Digital receipts, finance, blockchain

Funding: $4 million

Investors: Privately/self-funded

Seven tips from Emirates NBD

1. Never respond to e-mails, calls or messages asking for account, card or internet banking details

2. Never store a card PIN (personal identification number) in your mobile or in your wallet

3. Ensure online shopping websites are secure and verified before providing card details

4. Change passwords periodically as a precautionary measure

5. Never share authentication data such as passwords, card PINs and OTPs  (one-time passwords) with third parties

6. Track bank notifications regarding transaction discrepancies

7. Report lost or stolen debit and credit cards immediately

The Secret Kingdom

Director: Matt Drummond

Stars: Alyla Browne, Alice Parkinson, Sam Everingham

Rating: 3/5

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Almouneer
Started: 2017
Founders: Dr Noha Khater and Rania Kadry
Based: Egypt
Number of staff: 120
Investment: Bootstrapped, with support from Insead and Egyptian government, seed round of
$3.6 million led by Global Ventures

The specs

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo hybrid

Transmission: eight-speed automatic

Power: 390bhp

Torque: 400Nm

Price: Dh340,000 ($92,579

Difference between fractional ownership and timeshare

Although similar in its appearance, the concept of a fractional title deed is unlike that of a timeshare, which usually involves multiple investors buying “time” in a property whereby the owner has the right to occupation for a specified period of time in any year, as opposed to the actual real estate, said John Peacock, Head of Indirect Tax and Conveyancing, BSA Ahmad Bin Hezeem & Associates, a law firm.

Our family matters legal consultant

Name: Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Kinetic 7
Started: 2018
Founder: Rick Parish
Based: Abu Dhabi, UAE
Industry: Clean cooking
Funding: $10 million
Investors: Self-funded

The specs: 2018 Kia Picanto

Price: From Dh39,500

Engine: 1.2L inline four-cylinder

Transmission: Four-speed auto

Power: 86hp @ 6,000rpm

Torque: 122Nm @ 4,000rpm

Fuel economy, combined: 6.0L / 100km

How Alia's experiment will help humans get to Mars

Alia’s winning experiment examined how genes might change under the stresses caused by being in space, such as cosmic radiation and microgravity.

Her samples were placed in a machine on board the International Space Station. called a miniPCR thermal cycler, which can copy DNA multiple times.

After the samples were examined on return to Earth, scientists were able to successfully detect changes caused by being in space in the way DNA transmits instructions through proteins and other molecules in living organisms.

Although Alia’s samples were taken from nematode worms, the results have much bigger long term applications, especially for human space flight and long term missions, such as to Mars.

It also means that the first DNA experiments using human genomes can now be carried out on the ISS.

 

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: SmartCrowd
Started: 2018
Founder: Siddiq Farid and Musfique Ahmed
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech / PropTech
Initial investment: $650,000
Current number of staff: 35
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Various institutional investors and notable angel investors (500 MENA, Shurooq, Mada, Seedstar, Tricap)

INDIA SQUADS

India squad for third Test against Sri Lanka
Virat Kohli (capt), Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Vijay Shankar

India squad for ODI series against Sri Lanka
Rohit Sharma (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Siddarth Kaul

The five pillars of Islam

1. Fasting

2. Prayer

3. Hajj

4. Shahada

5. Zakat

Test series fixtures

(All matches start at 2pm UAE)

1st Test Lord's, London from Thursday to Monday

2nd Test Nottingham from July 14-18

3rd Test The Oval, London from July 27-31

4th Test Manchester from August 4-8

RESULTS

6.30pm: Maiden Dh 165,000 1,600m
Winner: Superior, Connor Beasley (jockey), Ahmad bin Harmash (trainer)

7.05pm: Handicap Dh 185,000 2,000m
Winner: Tried And True, Pat Dobbs, Doug Watson

7.40pm: Maiden Dh 165,000 1,600m
Winner: Roy Orbison, Fernando Jara, Ali Rashid Al Raihe
8.15pm

Handicap Dh 190,000 1,400m
Winner: Taamol, Dane O’Neill, Ali Rashid Al Raihe
8.50pm

Handicap Dh 175,000 1,600m
Winner: Welford, Richard Mullen, Satish Seemar

9.25pm: Handicap Dh 175,000 1,200m
Winner: Lavaspin, Richard Mullen, Satish Seemar

10pm: Handicap Dh 165,000 1,600m
Winner: Untold Secret, Xavier Ziani, Sandeep Jadhav

The specs

Engine: 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8
Power: 620hp from 5,750-7,500rpm
Torque: 760Nm from 3,000-5,750rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed dual-clutch auto
On sale: Now
Price: From Dh1.05 million ($286,000)

New schools in Dubai
Bio

Age: 25

Town: Al Diqdaqah – Ras Al Khaimah

Education: Bachelors degree in mechanical engineering

Favourite colour: White

Favourite place in the UAE: Downtown Dubai

Favourite book: A Life in Administration by Ghazi Al Gosaibi.

First owned baking book: How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson.


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