Why are productive economies experiencing burnout?

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Although Germany is very employee-focused, workers are now experiencing high levels of stress and burnout

Although Germany has some of the lowest working hours of any developed country (average 35-hour working week), excellent parental leave provisions (14 months of paid leave), and a generous extended sick leave (72 days) with 70% pay during illness, it is now experiencing stress and burnout at work.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal a Gallup survey found that 4.1 million out of 40 million German workers have experienced stress, depression or anxiety. A German health insurer was quoted as saying that the people it insures are losing more than 15 days of work per year because of workplace stress.

So what is happening to one of the most productive economies in Europe? Since the recession it has had low growth, major cutbacks of staff, and lower job security. As a result people are beginning to work during non-work hours and extending the working week into family time during their annual leave. To combat this Daimler, for example, has introduced a mail on holiday system that deletes an employee’s email when he/she is on holiday. And Volkswagen blocks emails received after office hours to be picked up the next working day.

With fewer people at work, doing more, working longer hours off-site, travelling further and being inundated by email overload, we need to take control of as many of these stressors as possible. We can start with email overload by beginning to manage them ourselves, and with the help of our employers and the technology itself.

Einstein once warned: “I fear the day technology will surpass our human interaction, the world will have a generation of idiots”. Employers can set more rigorous guidelines on who gets copied in to emails, avoid sending emails to people in the same building, block emails after the working day and while people are on holidays, and create Skype-like platforms for staff to talk to each other face-to-face rather than sending emails. All of these can help to reduce the overload, allowing employees better balance and ensuring they ‘work smart’ and do not do excessive unsocial hours.

What Germany is doing to raise the issue by novel approaches to controlling technology is good because it's not just guidelines but action to help support workers. The rest of Europe should take note, because we have a long way to go to create cultures that reflect the often-heard “the most valuable resource we have is our human resource”!

Cary Cooper is 50th anniversary professor of organizational psychology and health at Manchester Business School and president of the CIPD

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