One of the most popular terms in Germany today, barring “immigrant” or “refugee”, is “burnout”. Everyone seems to be suffering from this malady. Not surprisingly, this was also the word on everyone’s lips at the A+A …
Business in Germany must be tough, really tough, because, no matter who I chatted to at the A+A (more about this exhibition on pages 20 to 25 of this issue), everyone was complaining about “burnout”.
It’s not a phrase that we use that commonly in South Africa, so I turned to Google to define it. The Urban Dictionary’s explanation was probably not the right one, I figured, although it did make me giggle: “Burnout” is defined as “a high-school or college student who does little else than cut classes and smoke weed”.
According to this source, a “burnout” usually has “long, straight hair and a proclivity toward heavy-metal bands of the 1970s and 80s; can often be found in smoke-filled bathrooms and makeshift basement bars”.
I attempted to explain this to one particularly serious German man at the exhibition; he looked at me as though I was completely daft (a look I get quite frequently). That’s because, in Germany, “burnout” has little to do with smoking weed (although, it must be said, the two apparently do go hand in hand sometimes).
Instead, it’s a serious medical and psychological condition, which was actually coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, and it applies to people who are terribly stressed, exhausted, listless and unable to cope (a la yours truly on deadline).
Burnout is a huge – and growing – problem in Germany. In 2013, the former German Labour Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, reported that psychological illnesses caused by workplace stress resulted in 59-million lost days of work in 2011, costing the country’s economy an estimated €6 billion (almost R93 billion). Today, an estimated 2,7 million German workers are suffering from burnout.
According to Bruno Zwingmann, president of the German Federal Association for Occupational Safety and Health, about 175 000 people gave up work for medical reasons in Germany in 2013. “According to a recent study, the cost of early retirement to society is over €20 billion (about R309 billlion) per year, of which about half appears to be caused by pressure at work.
“With an average incapacity rate of 15 days per employee, Germany lost approximately 567,7 million days through sickness and ill health in 2013. Based on this incapacity volume, the Federal German Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that the nationwide loss of production totalled €59 billion (about R911 billion) in 2013 and the loss of gross added value was €103 billion (almost R1,6 trillion),” he reveals.
Not surprisingly, therefore, mental health is a hot topic in Germany. “Mental health requirements are, indeed, at the top of the list when we look at stress in our modern, globally networked working environment – a world which is currently entering a new phase of far-reaching changes through digitisation.
“Today’s burnt-out individual is subject to communication overkill, is continually under pressure to be creative and positive, while also having to market and manage themselves perfectly. Yet there are many indications that such a person is, as it were, a prototype illustrating the negative impact of our modern working life (and habitat),” says Zwingmann.
The topic also came to the fore at the A+A. For instance, experts discussed and debated Germany’s new Preventive Healthcare Act. “The Act has an impact on the working environment and, above all, on the country’s statutory health insurance companies and collaboration with the relevant responsible bodies,” explains Zwingmann.
This new Act reinforces changing perceptions within Germany. “Compared with the situation about 30 years ago, health and safety now forms part of a different economic environment in Germany. There is good evidence today that, in order to be economically sustainable and, thus, healthy, a company must have healthy, safe and ergonomic working conditions. The official figures certainly give us an idea about the magnitude of the potential in preventive healthcare,” says Zwingmann.
As such, the German government is proposing strengthening workplace health promotion and doubling the associated budget from €250 to €490 million (R3,9 to R7,6 trillion).
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do something like that in South Africa? Tsk tsk. Of course we can’t. We have to pay for things like Nkandla …