06 February 2010

NEWS - EPIDEMIC across Europe as Suicides soar as 1.5 million workers a day fall victim to bully bosses

AN EPIDEMIC of workplace bullying is sweeping through Germany, with as many as 1.5 million people a day affected and the economy haemorrhaging money.

Known in German as "mobbing", the harassment in offices, call centres, factories, warehouses, police stations, doctors' surgeries and hospitals has reached such a level that workplace bullying has been linked to numerous suicides.

The employment ministry says the problem is more acute than in other countries.

Several years ago, a specialist clinic opened to treat the victims of bullying, but to date it has had little impact.

The issue has resurfaced as a result of the case of Sedika Weingärtner, 45, who is suing her former employer, industry giant Siemens, for nearly £2 million.

Ms Weingärtner claims she was bullied for years by her bosses and discriminated against for being a woman and an Arab.

"I was put under massive pressure and was subject to subtle forms of abuse," she said as her case began in a Nuremberg courtroom this week.

"I became so ill that I collapsed in the workplace and had to go to the hospital. I almost died."

Ms Weingärtner came to Germany in 1991 as a single mother with three children after fleeing from Afghanistan, where she had worked in Kabul as a television journalist. She married a German, and in 2001 became a purchasing manager for Siemens, overseeing international projects in China, India and the United States.

Ms Weingärtner claims she was abused by her bosses, who called her names such as "dirt", "sloppy" and "Arab".

In 2004, Siemens asked her to sign an agreement to terminate her contract, but Ms Weingärtner refused.

"Harassment and discrimination cases are piling up, and people don't know how they can defend themselves," said her lawyer, Frank Jansen.

Trade unions and anti-mobbing groups say a fifth of all suicides in Germany – about 2,000 each year – are related to bullying at work.

Billions of pounds are spent in the world's third-largest economy treating victims in hospitals and clinics.

The personnel consulting firm Hill International in Austria, where bullying is also a problem, said: "Mobbing leads to huge economic damage, due to the across-the-board costs it creates with hospital visits, therapies, unemployment assistance and early retirement.

"Above all, every case of mobbing means financial losses on a major scale for each individual firm."

Bullying victims in Germany who have taken their own lives include a policewoman in Munich, a lawyer in Berlin and a hospital worker in Dortmund.

The typical workplace "mobber" is male, a supervisor and aged between 35 and 54.

Almost 44 per cent of victims fall ill because of mobbing, and half of them remain sick for more than six weeks.

Germany's health system has warned that it will need billions more in funding in the near future if it is to treat successfully all the victims of abuse in the workplace.

Suicides Inside France Telecom Prompting Sarkozy Stress Testing

Francis Le Bras discovered he’d become a corporate nobody when his name disappeared from the organizational chart on the wall of his Paris office. In 2008, Le Bras’s employer, France Telecom SA, cut his job as a writer of software applications for Minitel, a pre-Internet information service for telephone users. While 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 Le Bras, who’s 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.”

Le Bras says 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’s still 27 percent owned by French taxpayers, Bloomberg Markets magazine reported in its March issue. Since January 2008, 34 France Telecom employees have committed suicide, the company says. They killed themselves because of work-related stress, according to labor unions and relatives.

On Sept. 15, four days after a 32-year-old France Telecom employee identified publicly only as Stephanie jumped to her death from an office window, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government became involved. French Labor Minister Xavier Darcos ordered France Telecom Chief Executive Officer Didier Lombard to meet with unions to find ways to reduce stress and detect potentially suicidal behavior.

National Debate

Those deaths have triggered a national debate about whether they’re evidence of a wider malaise in French factories and offices. France may be the land of the 35-hour workweek and the monthlong summer vacation, yet it had a suicide rate of 17.6 per 100,000 people in 2005, the third highest among Group of Eight countries. (Russia and Japan were first and second.)

Workplace suicides aren’t limited to France Telecom. Three employees killed themselves within the space of four months in late 2006 and early 2007 at carmaker Renault SA’s technical development center near Paris. In 2008, there were 12 suicides directly resulting from work-related stress in French banks, according to the Syndicat National de la Banque et du Credit, a financial industry labor union.

France’s remote, impersonal management culture creates tense, conflict-ridden workplaces, says Patrick Legeron, a psychiatrist and CEO of Stimulus, a Paris-based company that advises employers and unions on how to reduce job-related mental illness.

Technocratic Management

“In France, executives are expected to have the right diplomas and be technically competent rather than be any good at managing people,” says Legeron, who wrote a report for the Labor 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 workweek, 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, 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,” Salengro says. “It lays the ground for the increase of stress and violence at work.”

Still Competitive

Even with reduced hours, France remains competitive. In 2008, it had the highest hourly productivity among the European Union’s largest economies, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Taking the U.S. as a base of 100, France scored 98.2 for gross domestic product per hour compared with 92.8 for Germany, 83.1 for the U.K. 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 like Le Bras were sidelined into menial jobs and even bullied into resigning. Two-thirds of France Telecom’s 103,000- strong domestic workforce can’t be fired because they’re classified as civil servants. The company has still reduced its France-based payroll by about 15,000 since 2006.

Under Pressure

“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 former head of the Economics Department at Ecole de Management de Lyon. “Managers are clearly under pressure to make their head-count 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, Lombard says he’ll introduce a program for a more humane working environment this year. One in four of the company’s domestic employees consider themselves “psychologically vulnerable,” according to a survey commissioned by France Telecom in the wake of the suicides.

“For me, it is unacceptable for some of our staff to feel stressed when they arrive at work,” Lombard, 67, said at a meeting on workplace conditions with union representatives in October.

Management Shakeup

On Oct. 5, France Telecom announced the resignation of Deputy CEO Louis-Pierre Wenes. Labor unions had called for the dismissal of Wenes, who was in charge of restructuring. Wenes’s replacement, Stephane Richard, was chief of staff at France’s Finance Ministry from May 2007 to September 2009, when he joined France Telecom as head of international operations.

Richard, 48, will succeed Lombard as CEO by 2011, according to France Telecom. The company declined to comment on a Jan. 21 report in France’s La Tribune newspaper that Richard would take the top job as early as June, with Lombard keeping the title of chairman.

Lombard and Richard’s negotiations with unions, which had been scheduled to conclude at the end of 2009, may now drag on into February, says Bertrand Deronchaine, a France Telecom spokesman.

“There is no legal deadline in order to conclude these discussions,” he said on Jan. 6. Lombard and Richard declined to be interviewed for this story.

‘Schizophrenic’ Government

France Telecom’s management is being placed in an impossible position by its main shareholder, says Elie Cohen, economist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

“The French government is acting in a schizophrenic way,” says Cohen, who was an outside director at the communications company from 1991 to 1995. “On one hand, the state demands that France Telecom perform like a private company in a liberalized market. On the other, it refuses to allow Lombard to manage the payroll according to market forces.”

Estimates of how many suicides in France are work related vary. In 2008, private-sector employers reported 49 suicides stemming from “professional causes,” based on data compiled by Caisse Nationale d’Assurance Maladie des Travailleurs Salaries, France’s state-funded health insurer. Dominique Huez, a doctor who has studied workplace depression, says the real figure may be as many as 3,000 deaths, or about 30 percent of the total number of suicides in 2007, the last year for which statistics are available.

Next-Desk Rivals

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, the country’s equivalent of the U.S. surgeon general. In 2008, Dab wrote a government- commissioned report recommending that health management play a central role in business school programs.

“Our chief executives come out of a school system based on individual competition,” says 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 specializes in work-related mental illnesses. Among France’s 40 largest companies by market value, 29 CEOs are graduates of the five most-prestigious grandes ecoles, which include the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole des Mines in Paris and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Strasbourg.

‘Workers Know Nothing’

“Our technocracy, the elite of the French nation produced by the grandes ecoles, have a sovereign contempt for ordinary employees,” says Peze, whose clinic, called Suffering & Work, treats about 900 patients annually. “As far as they are concerned, their workers know nothing.”

Pressure to perform is increasing employee stress and depression, says Emmanuel Charlot, marketing manager at Psya, a psychiatric counseling company in Paris that advises companies and labor unions. Mental health problems account for 27 percent of all workplace referrals to doctors, exceeding physical complaints such as repetitive strain injuries, according to French government statistics.

Finding a solution to the workplace suicide crisis is also complicated by the array of unions found at most large French companies. Under French law, companies with 11 or more employees must allow them to elect union or staff representatives.

The France Telecom workplace talks, for example, involve six separate unions, including the CFE-CGC and the CFTC, which represent managerial staff.

Job Protection

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 Paris-based research group that promotes free-market economics.

“The employment-protection laws are a terrible handicap for French companies that must compete internationally,” Francois says. “Managers stop hiring people because they know that in a downturn, they won’t be able to fire them.”

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 criticized his work writing billing systems for customers in developing countries.

Nonclercq, 42, says he was told that his job no longer existed, and while he wasn’t fired, it became clear to him that there was no reason to come to the office. Nonclercq sank into depression and felt so humiliated that he once burst into tears at the office at a meeting with human resources. He says the HR manager offered a piece of candy as consolation.

‘Brutalized’ Employees

The software engineer says he visualized himself dangling from the electrical wires that run along an alley behind his two-story house in Melun, 27 miles (43 kilometers) southeast of Paris. His doctor prescribed antidepressants and put him on sick leave.

Nonclercq says France Telecom doesn’t accept his sickness as work related. Surrounded in his living room by photos of his wife and three young boys, Nonclercq says that France’s labor- 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 brutalize them instead,” says 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.

Three Suicide Attempts

Michel, a former senior engineer at Electricite de France SA 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 new position advising employees who were looking for another job in the company.

Two years later, Michel was demoted to doing secretarial work by a new manager, who 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, once by hanging and twice with a knife.

“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.

Anti-Boss Song

To pass the time, Michel, who pads around his home dressed in wrinkled gray chinos and slippers, composes songs in his cramped back room.

One recent composition is called “Plea Against Suffering at Work,” sung to the music of “Internationale,” the socialist marching anthem. “We’re all ill, and it’s the fault of our bosses,” his lyrics go.

While Michel’s wife and three grown-up children keep an eye on him, EDF provides financial support. More than two years after he left work, he still draws his full annual salary. EDF is one of about 150 large and midsize French companies that subscribe to Psya’s 24-hour, year-round telephone hot line for employees with work-related psychiatric problems.

On a November afternoon, four psychiatrists sit by telephones in a small room at Psya’s second-floor office overlooking the traffic-clogged Rue La Fayette in central Paris. A phone rings -- one of about 6,000 calls the hot line took in 2009, about 20 percent more than in 2008.

‘Managers are Driven’

As banks cut jobs in the wake of the global downturn, more clients from the financial services industry are seeking help, Charlot says.

“Ten years ago, if you worked in a French bank, you were almost a civil servant,” he says. “Now, managers are driven very, very hard to deliver profits.”

One executive on the Paris trading floor at Societe Generale SA, France’s second-largest bank, says she has taken repeated sick leaves for depression and stress since the start of 2008. Her problems began in the wake of the revelation in January 2008 that Jerome Kerviel, a trader at Societe Generale, had lost 4.9 billion euros ($7 billion) in false trades. Senior managers questioned her competence, says the executive, who asked to remain anonymous.

“Throughout the day, they tell you that you’re worthless and understand nothing, without giving you any help,” she says. “Without the support of my family, my friends and the unions, I would have thrown myself under a subway train a long time ago.”

Government Pressure

It’s not just France Telecom that is under pressure to introduce a more-sympathetic corporate culture. Labor Minister Darcos 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 in February the names of companies that have introduced workplace reforms and another list of those that have done nothing.

For Le Bras, the France Telecom worker who contemplated suicide, any change in the corporate culture can’t come soon enough. He says the memory of his job elimination two years ago still rankles.

“I had to write a CV and show up for interviews like a new hire, even though I’d been there 20 years,” he says.

After a sick leave, Le Bras says he’s looking forward to returning to a new position as part of the team maintaining Minitel, the information service that’s been overtaken by online search engines. While that may help Le Bras regain his self- confidence, it will do little to keep his company globally competitive.


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