Robust Germany faces rising ‘burnout’ problem

Germany, holding up better than its eurozone partners in the current economic crisis, is battling the increasingly widespread phenomenon of "burnout" which is supposedly costing its economy billions of euros each year. AFP's Aurelia End reports.

Robust Germany faces rising 'burnout' problem
Photo: DPA

According to data compiled by the economic institute of the public-sector health insurer AOK last year, psychological illness is on the rise among Germany’s workforce.

Nearly one out of every 10 sick days in Germany in 2010 was due to psychological illness, the WIdO institute calculated. And between 2004 and 2010, the number of sick days related to psychological illness increased ninefold.

“Time pressure and stress are on the increase and the danger is that people will suffer burnout due to their jobs on the one hand and family pressures on other,” says WIdO’s deputy chief Helmut Schroeder.

Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the phenomenon and tackle it, particularly in small and medium-sized companies which form the backbone of the mighty German economy.

While big companies had already largely recognised the need to act, “70 percent of small and medium-sized companies aren’t doing anything. They often don’t know what to do,” von der Leyen told AFP in an interview.

“We’re losing a lot of time and money in Germany before businesses recognise that it’s not just about migraines or psychosomatic back problems,” she said, estimating burnout was costing businesses €8.0-10.0 billion ($10.5-13.1 billion) in lost output each year.

“Nothing is more expensive than sending a good worker into retirement in their mid-40s because they’re burned out. These cases are no longer just the exception. It’s a trend that we have to do something about,” she said.

In the past, the focus of the labour protection strategies developed by authorities, employers, employee representatives and insurers had been on the physical well-being of the workforce.

The new aim is to make psychological health a top priority from 2013.

Von der Leyen argued it was not about tightening legislation, as Germany’s current labour protection laws were already sufficiently strict and required employers to ensure the psychological well-being of their workers.

“But the laws aren’t sufficiently enforced, largely out of ignorance,” the minister said.

Asked what is making people ill, von der Leyen suggested a number of different factors, from monotony, time pressure, poor management, a lack of solidarity among workers, but also things such as open-floor office space and expectations that employees be available around the clock, receiving and answering work-related emails and phone calls even in their leisure time.

The powerful IG Metall labour union insists that concrete and binding regulations be drawn up to protect people’s mental health at the work place.

According to the union’s estimates, the health costs from burnout amount to €27 billion a year.

“While everyone is talking about burnout, neither firms nor policymakers are doing anything about it,” said IG Metall board member Hans-Juergen Urban.

Nevertheless, for some psychiatrists, “burnout” is simply a word in vogue, a fashionable and more acceptable moniker for what is simply a form of depression without the stigma attached to mental illness.

“Burnout is not a disease and never will be. It’s a vague, unclearly defined syndrome that for good reason is not included in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases,” said psychologist Markus Pawelzik.

But the public health insurer AOK disagrees.

“The burnout syndrome is an illness that must be taken seriously,” it writes on its website.

It could bring with it serious complications, such as cardiac arrhythmia or gastro-intestinal problems, AOK said.

“It can also lead to manifest depression including suicidal thoughts. It is not merely as fashionable disease, but was diagnosed in around 10 percent of the workforce as far back as the 1960s and 1970s. And estimates see the proportion rising to around a quarter of the workforce in the coming years,” AOK said.

The term has certainly become a buzzword for the media in recent years, with weekly magazine Der Spiegel dedicating two issues to the phenomenon last year and the Society for the German Language ranking it sixth in its annual list of Words of the Year.

Recently, well-known personalities such as football trainer Ralf Rangnick and the former head of media giant Bertelsmann, Hartmut Ostrowski, have spoken openly about their affliction.

But the high-brow daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung questioned why burnout was being written so much about in Germany, while in France, which is economically a lot worse off, “it’s hardly a preoccupation at all.”


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EXPLAINED: How to deal with wasps in Germany

The hot weather in Germany is good news for wasps, but not necessarily for people. Here’s what you need to know if you encounter the stinging critters this summer.

EXPLAINED: How to deal with wasps in Germany

Thanks to the persistently warm and dry weather across Europe this summer, wasp populations are on the rise, with pest controllers in France even dubbing 2022 ‘the year of the wasp’.

The peak of wasp season is still to come, however, as wasps tend to reach their maximum population between September and October. Here’s what you need to know about dealing with the stripy insects in Germany.

Is it illegal to kill wasps in Germany?

In short: yes. There are hundreds of wasp species in Germany, some of which are particularly endangered and are on the so-called “red list” of threatened animal and plant species.

Since they are a protected species, killing the insects is generally prohibited under the Federal Nature Conservation Act, and anyone who gets caught deliberately killing a wasp could face a hefty fine.

In North Rhine-Westphalia and Thuringia, a wasp-killer can face a fine of up to €50,000 while in Saarland, Baden-Württemberg, Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the maximum fine is up to €20,000. In the other federal states, catching, injuring or killing wasps can cost up to €5,000.

In the case of a specially protected wasp species such as the gyroscopic or button horn wasp, fines range from €10,000 to €65,000, depending on the state.

Are wasps dangerous?

Though they may be somewhat pesky, biologists and nature activists generally agree that wasps aren’t dangerous, at least to those who are not allergic to their stings. They are typically not aggressive unless threatened and will tend to flee rather than fight.

It would also take at least 50 to 100 stings to actually overdose on wasp venom, but severe allergies and accidents (while running away from a swarm, for example) could be more dangerous.

How do I keep wasps at bay?

There are a few tried and tested tricks you can use to ward off wasps.

Firstly, as wasps are primarily attracted to meat and sweets, you should keep these foods well covered as much as possible.

Wasps don’t like getting wet, so having a water spray bottle on the picnic table can come in very handy for keeping the critters at bay. Don’t go overboard with the spray, though, and don’t be alarmed if the wasp doesn’t move for a while after you’ve given it a dousing. As soon as its wings are dry, the insect will fly off.

READ ALSO: How to deal with fruit flies (and other critters) plaguing your German flat

Distraction tactics also work well: a bowl of overripe fruit – such as grapes – placed at a safe distance can be a good way to keep wasps away from you. 

One homemade deterrent you can try is a lemon cut in half, sprinkled with a few cloves, which is a particularly unpleasant scent for the insects.

How should I react to wasps?

If the uninvited guests do join your barbecue or picnic, you shouldn’t panic. “Take it easy” is the best motto when dealing with the black-and-yellow insects.

You should avoid abrupt movements and not lash out or blow in the direction of the animal as exhaled carbon dioxide makes the normally calm animals aggressive, and do not try to hit them or make any sudden movements.

What if I find a nest?

First of all, keep your distance – ideally at least five metres. Nests can host thousands of wasps and they will become aggressive if they feel threatened.

According to the Species Protection Information of the Berlin Senate Department wasps are subject to general protection and may “only be controlled if there is a reasonable reason to do so.” In other words, finding a wasp nest in your house doesn’t necessarily mean you can call pest control to come and get rid of it. 

The German Nature Conservation Association (NABU) advises those who come across a nest to seek advice, either by getting in contact with them directly or with your local environmental agencies or nature conservation authorities.

What should I do if I get stung?

If you are unlucky enough to get stung by a wasp, the first thing to do is to carefully clean the puncture site. NABU also recommends cooling the sting site and treating it with insect creams which you can get from your local pharmacy.

READ ALSO: Ticks in Germany: How to avoid them and what to do if you get bitten

Alternatively, you can use the old homemade remedy of cutting an onion in half, making an incision so that the juice can escape more easily, and rubbing it into the puncture site. This not only has a cooling effect but can also act as a disinfectant and anti-inflammatory.

For allergy sufferers, however, a wasp sting can be very dangerous. NABU recommends that allergy sufferers always carry emergency medication with them and if in any doubt, go straight to the emergency department of the local hospital.