Burnout – Psychological Stress at Work

Work absences due to psychological illness have risen by a disconcerting amount. What is it that sends both body and mind into a permanent state of emergency? And what are the consequences for workplace safety?

Photo: Fotolia alphaspirit

When sleep gets sidelined for work and only with copious amounts of caffeine and nicotine can you get anything done, you can be sure that complete exhaustion is lurking just around the corner. Experts call it a burnout, and this psychological disorder is experiencing an astronomical rise. Twenty years ago it was still the subject of jokes – cases were few and far between. But in the intervening years, it has gained a social dimension, indeed, it is now approaching epidemic level. One of the main triggers for this increase in psychological issues is the mounting pressure in many companies to deliver results and meet targets. The outcome? Psychological illnesses are, and have long been the second most common cause of work absence.

A study commissioned by the Bertelsmann Foundation and Barmer GEK health insurance in Germany yielded alarming results. Of the 1,000 working people surveyed, almost a quarter stated that they would be unable to maintain their current work rate for an extended period. Eighteen percent feel that they often reach the limits of their capabilities, with a further 23 percent regularly forgoing breaks. According to the study, every eighth employee presents signs of illness.

Founder and Head of the Hamburg BrainJoin Academy Horst Kraemer is a pioneer in stress research, and is only too aware of the alarming figures. He is convinced that stress – in addition to being a leading cause of absence – is the main factor in industrial and workplace incidents: “The problem is that companies don’t maintain statistics regarding stress, and technical reasons are often cited as the cause instead.”

Christiane Richter, Spokesperson for the German Association of Company Health Insurance Funds in Berlin confirms: “The problem is that workers don’t cite stress as a reason for their acci-dent on sick notes. It’s something that nobody would like to admit to, due to the fear of people viewing them as overwhelmed or incapable.” Furthermore, only a minute minority can actually recognize that an accident would not have happened were they fully concentrated on the task.

Stress is primarily triggered by organizational deficiencies. Being inadequately qualified, having insufficient information and being subject to workplace conflicts all lead to stress. A study by the North Rhine-Westphalian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs determined that stress as a result of heavy workload increases the likelihood of accidents occurring. This was also confirmed by an investigation carried out by a direct insurer – they discovered that one in three road accidents in Germany is caused by stress. A survey of care workers by German health insurance DAK Gesundheit also provided interesting results. Of the 874 people surveyed, 32 percent had an accident at work in the previous twelve months. Those with high stress levels were more than twice as likely to have a workplace accident.

Stress-induced absence costs Germany approximately 20 billion euros each year. Even more serious are the dangers for businesses and employees suffering from stress, as this often leads to work-place safety being ignored: “It’s like driving a car; people overestimate their abilities, become negligent and the number of errors increases dramatically.” Horst Kraemer sees the reasons that ‘no accident statistics on Earth’ provide insight into this as manifold: “We as humans believe there is a technical solution for everything, and if we are uncertain, we just put a few more signs up. But more signs don’t automatically equal more safety. We need to change our behavior.” The 55-year-old coach cannot understand why the personal stress situation of those involved is not the main factor to be examined when considering accident prevention measures in businesses.

“The importance of the consequences of stress should be given attention throughout all levels of an organization. On average, it takes two-and-a-half years before a person’s stress begins to become evident. In turn, this leads to an increased burden on their colleagues,” says Kraemer. This matches the experiences that Horst Kraemer has gained in the management of both German and Swiss companies. “Of course, these people are under extreme levels of stress, but they mostly recognize it too late, and the word ‘stress’ is often taboo in writing a sick note. That may be due to fear for their job, or resistance to admitting the true cause. This, however, is exactly the problem. Hormones that are constantly on high-alert mode divide body and psyche.”

But how can a manager keep their eyes fixed on occupational safety when they themselves are under stress? “HR managers and management need to receive neurosystemic coaching sessions and in-house training should integrate the fun-damentals of neurobiology, stress research and behavioral immunology, as well as the consequences of stress for communication, health, performance and quality of life. In other words, companies need more stress pioneers, to enable further thinking,” argues Kraemer. However, this requires a company-wide shift in attitude: “As long as personal failure is considered an individual problem, organizations will continue to be plagued by the consequences.”

Especially at risk of burnout are people who readily get involved and work independently at a high level. Often, those affected repeatedly demand extreme performance from themselves, are especially ambitious and don’t realize that they are, in the full sense of the word, burning out. Experts refer to burnout sufferers as procrastinating their own depression, as those affected use their work mania to close their eyes to reality.


Author: Norbert Böwing

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