Global Observer

Despite grumbling and strikes, French are happy at work

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PARIS -- A recent poll finds that a majority of French are much happier in the most peculiar of places, especially compared to their American counterparts.

PARIS A surprisingly high number of French workers reported that they are happy with their jobs according to a recent survey by Opinionway, a member of world research group Esomar.  The online interviews revealed that three out of four people in France are happy with their work and their colleagues.

The French are often stereotypically characterized by their short work weeks, plentiful vacation, and frequent protests for better working conditions.  Last year, protesters across the country made headlines as they rallied against the government’s proposal to change the age of retirement.  French workers can now retire at 62 instead of 60, with full benefits kicking in at 67 instead of 65.

While protests and strikes do occur, the reality of the situation is that highly-specialized and educated French workers have helped create one of the most productive workforces in the world.

While overall happiness is difficult to measure, similar American surveys have reported that American workers, while the most productive in the world, are largely less content with their jobs.  A 2010 CBS poll reported 49% of Americans were satisfied with their jobs.  A similar study by Mercer echoed the CBS poll.

What is it about working in France that leaves so many workers happy?

Morwena L’Hénoret, a French worker in an American study abroad program in Paris, has a glimpse into work life from both sides of the Atlantic.  She’s not surprised about the survey’s findings despite the French stereotype of being unhappy and striking for better conditions.

With unemployment hovering around an uncomfortable ten percent, is having a job in the first place enough to keep the French happy?  “I think that in this time of financial uncertainty, work becomes a refuge.  We are under so much pressure that as soon as we have a job, we are willing to do anything to keep it,” she said in her native French.

The perks of working for a French company contribute to employee morale, according to L’Hénoret.  Many companies contribute money to meal tickets to help their workers cover costs during lunch, but these extra services go even further.  “Bigger businesses in France are outfitted with Business Committees that can help access a list of leisure activities, coupons for vacations or for outings to the movies,” L’Hénoret said.

In addition to cultural differences like shorter average work weeks and longer average vacation, L’Hénoret said that sharp divisions in France between work and home life also contributes to a happier ambiance in the workplace.  “It’s a sort of microcosm where we are, in a sense, protected,” she said,  “with labor codes, indefinite work contracts, unions, and colleagues friends that become friends.”

This division, for American expat Laura Tallent, is important to understanding the poll’s results.  “For example, I have relatively few friends in France that have a work phone,” she said, “and so there is a clearer delineation between your work life and your personal life.”

After working long hours in New York without lunch breaks and around-the-clock expectations, American expat Heather Simon understands why the French would be happy in their jobs.  “Having a personal life is a lot more respected here,” she said.

Work isn’t rosy for all the French, especially the ten percent who are unemployed.  There is a lack of stimulation to grow and move up in a job, a corporate ladder that Simon said Americans are more willing to climb.

This cultural difference doesn’t go unnoticed by the French.  “The only snag is the lack of professional evolution,” L’Hénoret said.

Photo: Four Story

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Bryan Pirolli

Correspondent (Paris)

Bryan Pirolli has worked for Conde Nast and Travel+Leisure and has written for EuroCheapo.com and Concierge.com. He holds a degree from New York University and is currently studying at the Sorbonne. He is based in Paris, France. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure