Saving morale, one French boss at a time

NANTERRE, FRANCE (AFP) - Entrepreneurship is in fashion in France with President Emmanuel Macron spreading a vision of a nation rejuvenated by the energy of start-ups, but being the boss can be a crushing burden when things go wrong.

Company heads often feel they need to cultivate an aura of omnipotence when dozens of people depend on them to be in top shape. But that also often prevents them from sending out an SOS when things are looking down.

"We are tempted to ignore the CEO, associated to an image of invulnerability and who has the mission to take care of the employees," says the Apesa association on its website.

The group was founded by employees of commercial courts frustrated at being unable to provide the human help needed by increasing number of failing business owners suffering psychological distress in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Isolation tends to be worst for owners of small businesses who also have the fewest resources at hand, quickly making their situation feel hopeless. Hundreds of French bosses, seeing no way out, are estimated to commit suicide each year.

But volunteers are stepping in, helping businessmen find solutions before it's too late.

On a recent afternoon, the owner of small construction firm stepped into an office just a stone throw from the skyscrapers of Paris' business district.

The money ran out

Awaiting him at the CIP centre which consults bosses facing difficulties were three experts: an accountant, a retired commercial court judge and a lawyer.

His story was all too familiar: anxious clients postponed orders during the presidential election campaign, and unpaid bills and taxes were piling up.

"We've suspended payments," said the head of the business with seven employees who is foregoing his own salary as the firm built up an overdraft of 35,000 euros (S$56,087) and a debt of 27,000 in social security contributions.

He sees no clear way forward as orders are once again falling, and the advice of the experts wasn't heartening.

"I don't see any option other than court-supervised restructuring," said the accountant.

"But you need to prepare as much as possible ahead of time to improve your chances," added the lawyer, who walked the businessman through all the steps needed to continue operating and avoid the restructuring process ending with the liquidation of his firm.

Helping bosses with the legal, social as well as psychological issues needed to avoid the businesses going bust is the job of the roughly 60 CIP centres in France.

Each year they welcome around 3,000 bosses seeking information, advice and support.

"Mostly it is heads of small companies, who are alone and don't have any resources," said William Nahum, who founded the first CIP 22 years ago and heads up the national network.

Don't judge

These bosses often find themselves overwhelmed by keeping their business from sinking only to face equally daunting administrative procedures to try to save it.

The latest data by the firm ARC, which specialises in recovering overdue bills, suggests the CIPs won't be lacking in clients anytime soon.

The average overdue payment for small and medium-sized businesses in France jumped to 14.5 days overdue this year from 10.4 days in 2016. And the bills overdue more than 30 days nearly tripled to 11 per cent of the total.

"The idea is that these meetings are less formal than those at court, that we talk openly," said Francoise Spiri, one of the volunteers at the CIP in Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris.

"Often the companies are out of cash, you have to determine their situation and which procedure is most adapted to their case," said Spiri, who works as both an accountant and auditor.

With his industrial firm of three employees facing serious financial difficulties, Christopher Woodley turned to a CIP two years ago.

"They were reassuring at a time when I had doubts," he said.

"They have competent people who look at things in a completely neutral and objective manner," said Woodley, whose business has now recovered.

The absence of judgment is important for the success of the meetings, said Laurence Duvigneaud, a medical doctor and psychiatrist who is part of the Apesa network that provides counselling to managers suffering psychological crises.

'Personal failure'

Apesa has been working with the CIP centres for two years, helping to train volunteers to spot signs of emotional distress and how to encourage troubled executives to seek psychological counselling.

"The suffering of an entrepreneur connected with the shutting down a business can lead to suicide," said Duvigneaud, putting the number of bosses who take their own lives at around 650 per year.

By listening to business owners and providing support, the CIPs help bosses to "take a step back and gain some perspective on what happened", allowing "an earlier handling of suicide risks".

Duvigneaud said "business owners are considered as being the strong men of society" and thus those around them often don't pick up on warning signals.

Another difficulty, she said, is that for many a professional failure provokes "a feeling of personal failure" as "owners of small and medium-sized businesses have invested everything in their firms: their lives, their pride, their savings..."

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