The French Disease

  • Share
  • Read Later
For nearly two decades, french hospital staff psychologist Françoise Pagano watched as her bosses whittled away both her responsibilities and career opportunities. They had tried to sack her nine times, but the courts over-ruled them. "Since they couldn't fire me, they figured I'd eventually quit if I felt isolated, useless and humiliated in my work," says Pagano. "I've stayed and I've fought, but I have explicit orders not to do anything, and I'm shunned by other staff members. My career — like my salary — is blocked forever."

Pagano is among an estimated 1 million French victims of harcèlement moral — the sustained persecution by bosses or colleagues seeking to demoralize their targets and force them to quit. The methods of morale harassment vary from incessant criticism, accusation and sabotage to permanent physical isolation from co-workers and clients, and even deprivation of office space. Its motives are just as nasty — from personal vendetta, to job blackmail for personal or political reasons, to provoking the resignation of employees to avoid hefty severance payments. In the most serious cases, staff opt for unemployment, succumb to depression, and commit suicide.

"Whatever the motive or means, the defining characteristic is wanting to break or eliminate an employee through perse-cution," says psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen, whose best selling book, Le Harcèlement Moral: La Violence Perverse Au Quotidien (to be released in English in November as Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity), awoke France to the problem. "It's a daily, evil assault on workers that has been kept secret too long." While morale harassment has been identified in the U.S. and some European countries as "bullying" or "mobbing," French employees had tended to view themselves as victims of isolated, sadistic bosses. That has changed since Hirigoyen's book, which has sold 360,000 copies and has been translated into 17 languages.

Reaction to the book moved psychologist Pagano to form the National Association of Victims of Psychological Harassment at Work — which like similar French support groups has been inundated with requests for help over the past year. French work inspectors and doctors have also become more active in identifying probable victims, and have taken steps — including ordering paid leave on medical grounds — to identify and provide assistance to victims of abuse.

Lawyers who specialize in labor issues are receiving more cases based on morale-harassment complaints, and unions have created posts to deal with the issue. Legislation similar to the 1992 law proscribing sexual harassment has also been proposed. Awaiting that, courts have begun ruling in favor of victims by holding employers responsible for psychological and economic hardship.

Despite such advances, thousands of French workers continue to suffer vindictive treatment — perhaps most often in the nation's reputedly cushy but unpoliced public sector. Following conflicts with his administrative superiors, for example, municipal youth worker Jean-Eudes Dubois found himself reassigned to "a forest, all alone, making sure no one stole the trees". Since receiving that futile posting outside his native Orleans, Dubois says, repeated scheduling changes have conflicted with his family commitments — the aim of which, he charges, "was to get me to quit either from boredom, or inconvenience to my private life. Meanwhile, I am getting a full, tax-payer-funded salary for watching that the squirrels don't sprain their ankles. What a waste." Despite a series of court battles over his treatment — some successful — administrative courts have thus far failed to condemn Dubois' forest deployment as aberrant.

Pagano says her blacklisting started after a campaign she began in 1983 to create specialized psychological units in national hospitals. That would have meant extra work for health administration officials, and competition for psychiatric wards. "They saw me as a problem, and decided to get rid of me one way or another," she says. "Many times, perpetrators of morale harassment don't even need a reason. They decide they don't like someone, or simply want to see someone bend to their power, and the torture begins."

Although only recently awakened to the nature and scope of persecution on the job, France is hardly the only country grappling with it. A 1998 study of European Union workers found that 8.1% — or 12 million people — said they had suffered prolonged abuse at work during the previous year. And the situation is unlikely to improve in the near future. The government's imposition of a 35-hour workweek at the same pay received for 39 will force managers to try to get more work out of their employees in less time — an effort that will increase workplace pressure and create tensions in manager-subordinate relationships. That in turn can transform impatience and irritation into something far more sinister.