“You wouldn’t overload a piece of machinery and expect it to last long without failure.”
Two recent studies show that stress, burnout and sleep loss are having a significant negative impact across the European Union. In a recent EU Labour Force Survey, more than a quarter of respondents — 55.6 million workers — said their well-being had been “affected by exposure to psychosocial risks,” such as too much work, long hours, tight deadlines and organizational changes. And a new study from the RAND Corporation revealed the high costs of sleep among European countries. The report, which looked at countries worldwide, found that Germany and the United Kingdom suffer the highest economic losses in Europe due to to insufficient sleep with each losing the equivalent of around 1.65 million working hours a year due to absenteeism and presenteeism (showing up to work, but working unproductively due to stress, illness or burnout). This represents $50 billion a year in the UK (1.86% of the country’s GDP) and $60 billion in Germany (1.56% of the country’s GDP).
“There are definitely cultures in many professions where the more they can squeeze from you, the tighter they will squeeze,” said Jesse Tremblay, a counseling psychologist who works as a therapist at London’s leading mental health hospital the Nightingale. “Clients often struggle with the logic that their firm will pressure them until they break. On other occasions they are aware of this, but they push for what they can get in a warped type of natural selection.”
Other research shows that the culture of overwork and burnout has been a widespread problem across Europe for years. A 2016 survey from German work-management business Wrike found that a significant number of those surveyed had experienced an increase in workload, which was common throughout Europe, with 72% of German workers “struggling to cope” and 77% in France. Workers in Germany also complained about quicker turnarounds, an increase in complex IT systems, and disparate working locations as reasons they were feeling stressed at work.
“You wouldn’t overload a piece of machinery and expect it to last long without failure,” said Wrike’s CEO Andrew Filev. “The same principles apply to humans, especially if you expect them to be making impactful, creative, and high quality work on a consistent basis.”
And the costs of that overload can be heavy, for both companies and employees. In the UK alone, for example, an HSE study found that 11.7 million days were lost to stress, depression or anxiety between 2015 and 2016, at a cost of £6.5 billion per year. When this extends to all of Europe, according to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, this adds up to an annual cost of around €600 billion a year — “€272 billion on absenteeism and presenteeism , €94 billion on missed work days, €242 billion on loss of productivity, €63 billion on healthcare costs and disability payments of €39 billion.”
Describing some of his most impacted clients, Tremblay lists a number of alarming symptoms. “When a patient comes to see me with stress, it basically means that they’re just not coping,” he said. “They’re having difficulty keeping up with everything they have to do, finding themselves overwhelmed by little things, having difficulty sleeping, experiencing panic attacks, having trouble with severe procrastination.” They may also change the way they eat and are more susceptible to problem drinking and severe sleep problems, he says.
In the most extreme cases, burnout can even lead to death. Stress can cause cardiovascular problems, it strains the respiratory system and it stimulates the endocrine system to excess. And across the world — particularly in Europe and the U.S. — there have been an alarming number of suicides in which stress and burnout played a role, including several by those who had worked at banks. Sarvshreshth Gupta, who worked at Goldman Sachs, had told his father just prior to his death that he hadn’t slept in two days because of his workload. In May of 2016, Martin Senn, a former executive at Zurich Bank, committed suicide three years after Zurich’s finance director Pierre Wauthier had also taken his own life. Wauthier’s death came just weeks after a similar incident involving then-CEO of Swisscom, Carsten Schloter.
Others have been “overworked to death,” Tremblay says. He refers to early examples — in the mid-1990s, a junior doctor died after working three nights in a row, and in 1994 a British pilot died during a flight due to persistent and unrelenting occupational stress, according to the autopsy.
The Culture Shift & Solutions
Despite the grim statistics, many companies and governments across Europe are taking steps to address the problem of stress and burnout. Much was made of a recent bill, passed by the French National Assembly, which would give employees the “right to disconnect” in order to guarantee “the respect of rest periods and vacations, as well as personal and family lives.” Though the bill wasn’t the outright “France bans after-work emailing” that many headlines claimed, it did put the onus on business owners to consider the impact of the demands put on their employees, especially by technology.
In Germany, car manufacturer Daimler has been fighting the epidemic with a long-standing mental health and stress program involving digital training, e-learning modules and short films. Daimler was also one of the first companies to introduce a more innovative email policy in an attempt to relieve stress: employees can opt into a ‘Mail on Holiday’ auto delete policy, which deletes emails sent to them during vacations. Elsewhere in Germany, Volkswagen has also stopped employees from receiving emails on their work devices in the evenings.
Major auditing company PwC has a similar campaign. Laura Hinton, head of people at the firm’s London office, describes a “cultural change” within the company’s attitude toward stress and mental health. “It makes sense morally and commercially,” she says. PwC now has a number of “senior mental health advocates” across the company whose role is to discuss their own experiences with mental health problems with the goal of destigmatizing them.
Elsewhere, a City Mental Health Alliance has been established in London, focusing on supporting city workers and their families. The program gives employers ways in which they can support their employees’ mental health, and provides a helpline for those struggling with their mental health.
But Jason Stockwood, CEO of Simply Business, the largest business insurance provider in the UK says that businesses should be doing more. “We offer free yoga classes, mindfulness apps and regular free meals to help our people feel at home and valued in the workplace, as opposed to constantly pressured.”
This, he says, has not only improved employee morale, but has also boosted productivity.
Darrin Wood, who works for European tech company MVF, also sees the connected between thriving employees and the bottom line. “From a simple business point of view, stress management reduces turnover, which is one of the biggest impediments to business growth,” he says. “There are clear company benefits from having a robust wellbeing program.”
One problem is that many businesses simply don’t know where to start. The EU Labour Force Survey found that around 40% of managers in European businesses considered stress related psychosocial risks “more difficult to manage than traditional occupational health risks,” and a 2016 CIPD survey found that only 10% of UK employers have a standalone well-being strategy in place.
“Many corporate programs for stress reduction are empty platitudes,” said Tremblay. “What they can do, and to some extent are, is provide training and normalization for stress and other mental health issues, so employees feel less stigmatized by early interventions.”
Counseling can also help — Tremblay believes that taking cues from mental health services may be a good way for businesses to manage employee burnout. “Cognitive behavioral therapy could really help,” he suggests.
Kate Franklin, director of personal development company White and Lime, advocates mindfulness as an antidote to burnout, and says that it’s been a “key part” of their European programs.
“It works really well for overworked employees as a way to improve focus and concentration, and is also an immediate stress buster when you’re already feeling overwhelmed,” says Franklin. “It’s catching on for good reason.”
Whether it’s to improve profit or boost the psychological well-being of their employees, some European businesses are catching on to the importance of stress and burnout management. As Jason Stockwood says, “Businesses have both a common sense obligation and a moral duty to combat stress however possible.”
Originally published at medium.com