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Stress and depression blight French workers

Competition, pressure and harassment: France's white-collar employees are facing a growing litany of "brutal" psychological risks in the workplace, according to experts.

Stress and depression blight French workers
French workers suffering from more and more "brutal" psychological risks, experts say. Photo: Shutterstock/AFP

Despite France's labour laws, some of the strongest in the world, depression, long-term illness, professional burnout and even suicide are becoming increasingly common among service-sector workers.

Fabienne Godefroy became severely anorexic, losing 30 kilogrammes (66 pounds), and developed paranoia after two years of sexual and emotional harassment at her job in the south-western city of Toulouse.

She says constant hounding by her supervisor and his superior, lewd comments at meetings and obscene anonymous phone calls at home made her feel like a "hunted animal".

"To want to kill yourself because of work, yes it happens," she said. 

The 41-year-old left her job with the Post Office several months ago and is now kept under close supervision by two psychologists.

Godefroy is not alone. The impact of stress at work was made brutally clear by a wave of suicides at French telecoms giant Orange between 2008 and 2009.

In that period, 35 employees took their lives, some of them in the workplace itself. Many of them left suicide notes blaming their "terror" of management and the shock of being shunted from one job to another with no regard for their skills.

One man jumped off a bridge after being transferred to a call centre. A 32-year-old woman threw herself out of an office window just days after a technician tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the stomach during a meeting when he learnt his job was being scrapped.

The former boss of France Telecom, Didier Lombard, and the company were charged with harassment in July 2012 – a first in France.

This year alone another ten employees of the company committed suicide by March, nearly as many as the whole of 2013, the Observatory for Stress and Forced Mobility, putting out a  "serious alert" about the company.

Observatory spokesman Pierre Morville blamed Orange's heavy redundancy plan – 30,000 employees out of a total workforce of 100,000, the largest job cuts from any French company in the past two decades – for creating an atmosphere of despair.

"With the advent of hyper competition and market constraints, employees have been destabilized," he said.

"American and Japanese managerial methods have been applied to workers in a somewhat brutal manner."

 'Employees become tormentors'

The European Agency for Health and Safety at Work says the problem is not unique to France.

According to a study of 31 European countries published last year, stress at work is seen as a common phenomenon by more than half of employees.

Job insecurity, too much work and harassment were cited as the most common causes for workplace depression.

"The physical suffering once linked to work has been transformed into a more intimate form of emotional suffering," said Denis Maillard from the Technologia advisory group, which specializes in analyzing risk in the workplace.

"Drudgery is now much more psychological than in the industrial world because of the demand for employees to engage differently in their work," he added.

Technologia, which has carried out a hundred studies of French companies in the past five years, found that workers at France's Post Office and unemployment agency Pole Emploi are most vulnerable to psychological problems because of demand for increased productivity.

For Jean-Claude Delgenes, head of Technologia, problems of bullying and psychological burnout reflect "an organization that forgets people and puts more and more emphasis on pressure and profitability."

Under these conditions, employees "swamped with work, will become tormentors to achieve their goals," he said.

Earlier this year The Local reported how millions of French workers were said to be close to burnout due to the pressures of overtime.

“France’s appearance from the outside can be a bit simplified,” Technologia's head Jean-Claude Delgenes told The Local at the time. “There is a lot of overtime. Most workers don’t adhere strictly to the 35-hour work week.”

Instead, they are staying late, doing more and working remotely because the economic crisis has them in fear of losing their jobs, he says. France is battling a 16-year high unemployment rate that is hovering above 10.5 percent. At the same time email and smart phones allow people to work any time, any place.

“We have poor self-control when it comes to new technology,” Delgenes said. “Work spills over into people’s private lives. The difference between work and social life used to be clearly distinct."

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WORKING IN FRANCE

How to get a summer job in France

As the summer holidays approach in France, many employers are looking for seasonal workers - so if you're looking for a summer job, here's how to go about it.

How to get a summer job in France

There are thousands of employment offers in France – a simple internet search for jobs d’été came up with numerous jobs boards offering work in France, while the government-backed Centre d’Information et de Documentation pour la Jeunesse (CIDJ) offers advice and information on all aspects of life for young people in France, including finding seasonal work and summer placements.

Sectors including agriculture, hospitality and tourism are always recruiting in the summer, seeking fruit-pickers, holiday camp workers and serving/hotel staff.

But what are the rules for people seeking summer jobs?

READ ALSO Vendange: What you really sign up for when you agree to help with the French wine harvest

Age

Children from the age of 16 (under certain circumstances, the age limit drops to 14) who are legally resident in France can work as long as they have written authorisation from their parents or legal guardians. A model authorisation letter is available here

Those under the age of 18 cannot undertake certain jobs for health and safety reasons.

In the following circumstances, children as young as 14 or 15 can work during school holidays.

  • The holidays must last at least 14 days;
  • The child must work no more than half the days of the holiday – so, if a vacation period is two weeks, they can work for no more than one of those weeks;
  • The child is given ‘light duties’ that offer no risk to their safety, health, or development;
  • From the age of 15 and if the child has completed their troisieme education, a minor can register for an apprenticeship. 

Salary

Salary is usually paid monthly and will have a payslip. For those aged 18 and over, pay will be at least equal to the minimum wage.

 For those aged 14 to 17, who have less than six months’ professional experience, the minimum allowed rate is 80 percent of the minimum wage. For those aged 17 to 18, the rate rises to a minimum of 90 percent of France’s minimum wage.

  • The minimum wage in France is currently €10.85 gross per hour (€1,645.58 gross per month based on a 35-hour week);
  • the employment contract is fixed-term and can take different forms (fixed-term contract, seasonal employment contract, temporary employment contract, etc);
  • Seasonal employees are subject to the same obligations as the other employees of the company and have access to the same benefits (canteens, breaks, etc.).

Under 18s have certain additional protections:

  • between the ages of 14 and 16, during school holidays, employees on any contract cannot work more than 35 hours per week nor more than 7 hours per day;
  • They cannot work at night;
  • Those aged 14 to under 16 working during their school holidays can only be assigned to work which is not likely to harm their safety, their health or development.

Right to work in France

If you’re a French citizen or hold permanent residency in France then you have the right to work, but for foreigners there are extra restrictions.

Anyone who holds the passport of a EU/EEA country or Switzerland, is free to work in France or to travel to France seeking work without needing a visa or work permit.

Most other people will need permission to work in France – even if it’s only for a short period or for casual work such as grape-picking. Depending on your country of origin you may need a visa – everything you need to know about that is here.

In addition to the visa, you may also need a work permit, which is the responsibility of the employer.  To employ anyone in France for less than 90 days, an employer must get a temporary work permit – before the prospective employee applies for a short stay visa. This permit is then sent to the embassy at which the employee is applying for a visa.

If you come from countries including the UK, USA and Canada you can spend up to 90 days in France without a visa – but you may still need a work (convention d’accueil) if you want to work while you are here.

READ ALSO Six official websites to know if you’re planning to work in France

Certain countries have specific ‘seasonal worker’ visas on offer, for certain sectors which allows – for example – Canadians to come to France and work the ski season. 

Cash-in-hand jobs

Certain sectors which have a lot of casual workers – for example seasonal fruit-picking – do have cash-in-hand jobs, known in France as marché noir (black market) or simply travail au black (working on the black, or working illegally). 

This is of course illegal and working this way carries risks – as well as the possibility of losing your job if labour inspectors turn up you are also in a vulnerable position. If your employer suddenly decides not to pay you, or make unexpected deductions from your wages, there is very little you can do about it since you won’t have any kind of work contract. 

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