Is the French working environment a happy one?

Stressed Secretary“Working keeps us healthy,” says the French popular song. So would most employees sing along with this? A recent Ipsos study across the EU found that the French were a discontented lot: over four out of ten, a higher proportion than in most countries, were unhappy at work. But it turned out to mean that, although often satisfied with their job, they were not at ease with the human environment in which they worked.

Why should this be? Step forward Hubert Landier, author of 18 bonnes raisons de détester son entreprise (“18 reasons to hate the place where you work”). He explains: “A lot of the problems come from specifically French attitudes, especially among managers. Hierarchy is very strong and it’s defined in all sorts of ways. I recall one place I visited where a secretary was deputed to make good coffee for her boss but had to get her own from a machine. That was quite normal,  he felt. I’ve also been in companies where executives barely acknowledged their subordinates, rarely offered praise for good work but were quick to bawl them out for mistakes. At its worst this emphatic stress on hierarchy can lead to bullying, intolerable stress for employees and – as we saw at France Telecom – cases of suicide.”

Can this situation be changed? “If the will is there, yes. The key thing is effective communication. That’s why the intranet is a bad idea, unless used very sparingly. People have to talk to each other face-to-face and not see this as a waste of time.” So what’s the secret for making the workplace agreeable? “First, it should be a pleasant environment to spend the day – comfortable, bright, cheerful. Second, the social atmosphere should be relaxed and happy – which doesn’t mean there’s not total seriousness about work – and no stress on hierarchy for its own sake. Finally, there’s a place for conviviality – regular occasions when staff can get together on a more equal footing and ideas be freely exchanged. Let me tell you I’ve known companies who’ve increased their productivity by 20 per cent in a few months by adopting a more human style of management.” So can this happen on a large scale in France? “It’s started, it’s spreading slowly ... but there’s a long way to go.”