29th Mar 2023

A 'silent pandemic' the EU is not prepared for

  • About 30 percent of Europeans reported at least one health problem such as fatigue, headaches, eyestrain, muscle problems or pain, caused by work (Photo: Nedad Stojkovic, Flickr)
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It all started innocently.

Working from home, during the pandemic, sounded great at the beginning, but turned out to be a nightmare. The isolation, and the increasingly complex problems which had to be solved from home, alone, eroded her self-confidence.

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Keeping up with the ever-increasing workload became a challenge. After a while, the smallest task felt impossible to deal with. Then the war in Ukraine started. She stopped sleeping, only getting a couple of hours of rest, getting through the day in an anxious zombie-like state.

"I thought maybe I am tired. I was glad I had Covid so that I didn't need to work," this EU official told EUobserver, on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons.

She took two months of leave because of burnout — a challenge faced by a silent but large group of people.

Burnout, and workplace stress, is on the rise in Europe, research evidence is now underpinning what everybody senses.

More than four out of ten workers (44 percent) in the EU say that their work stress has increased as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a survey by the EU's agency for safety and health at work, EU-OSHA, published last Monday (10 October).

Almost half of respondents, 46 percent, said they are exposed to severe time pressure or work overload. Other stress-inducing factors include poor communication or cooperation within the organisation and lack of control over the pace or processes at work.

Work-related health issues are on the rise as well. About 30 percent of respondents reported at least one health problem such as fatigue, headaches, eyestrain, muscle problems or pain, caused by work.

"Mental health is the silent pandemic," Irish centre-right MEP Maria Walsh, who spearheads several parliament initiatives on mental health, told EUobserver.

"[The] Covid [pandemic] expedited and exacerbated the situation we have been living in Europe and the world for generations — this belief system where work has become the main purpose driver of life," Walsh said, referring to a "rat race of success" typical in all sectors.

Like any other risk

A recent European Parliament resolution put together by Walsh called on the EU commission to "establish mechanisms" for the prevention of anxiety, depression and burnout at the workplace — urging to recognise them all as occupational diseases.

High work intensity, poor leadership quality, long working hours, emotional demands, low level of autonomy, and tense social relationships at work, such as high levels of conflict, bullying, lack of support from colleagues, increase the risk of burnout, according to a 2018 report by Eurofound, an EU agency focusing on research for better work-related policies.

Imbalances between the desired employee benefits and the actual rewards also add to the likelihood of burnout, Eurofound found. Some of the physical symptoms can be diabetes, heart diseases, cardiovascular disorder, prolonged fatigue, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, pain.

These risks, called the psychosocial risks, are considered new, even if they represent the same level of risk as, for instance, working with biological agents, Paula Franklin, senior researcher with the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) told EUobserver.

"These are risks just like any other risk at work," Franklin said, adding that "there is indication that the problem is a lot bigger than what we have data for". "It is the tip of the iceberg and it is already very considerable," she stated.

Overall, the costs of mental ill health is estimated to make up more than four percent of GDP across all EU member states (based on 2015 data), and the cost of work-related depression has been estimated at €620bn a year.

No break

The pandemic, nevertheless, has made things even worse.

For frontline workers, people in the restaurant business, in hospitality, work has become more precarious. While for many others work routines have invaded homes, and people's private lives. Back to back online meetings for office workers mean there is no break in the workload.

The health care sector in several EU countries suffers from staff shortages, which creates anxiety for employees in the sector. If there is not enough staff, workers cannot get a break.

This creates a vicious circle with staff burning out, prompting an even bigger shortage of personnel.

There is also a lot more seasonal and temporary work, which adds to the feeling of insecurity about income and about career expectations, increasing people's stress levels.

"We have to rethink how work is structured," Franklin argued, adding that "up to 35 percent of depression in EU countries can be because of these work related factors."

In Brussels, there is talk of increased burnout at EU institutions, but data is non-existent, because medical certificates for sick leave do not contain information on the diagnosis.

When asked by EUobserver, the European Parliament said it offers its staff help lines, webinars and psychologists. The European Commission, for its part, said they do coaching of managers, trainings, awareness raising, and flexible working arrangements to help staff cope.

Systematic problems

Despite the fact that work-related mental health issues are on the rise, it is still a societal taboo, seen as a personal problem, rather than a systemic one.

"There is no question that work can make you mentally ill, yes it can," Franklin pointed out, arguing that the burden of "getting better" should not be solely on the worker.

Prevention measures on the negative impacts often target the individual, such as workplace yoga or mindfulness training.

However, as long as nothing changes structurally, for instance in the workload, those only put a burden on the individual who is already under stress, and bring no sustainable change.

"This is not an individual mental health issue," Franklin said, adding that "some of these factors are beyond the individual's control, such as too much work, or too intensive work."

"You have to look at it systematically, what is it in the organisation that is making people ill," she added.

Way out

There is no recent harmonised data on burnout in EU countries.

A 2018 study by Belgium's Leuven University said that the countries with "the highest burnout levels are predominantly found in eastern (Poland) and southeastern Europe" (Western Balkans and Turkey), and countries with the lowest burnout scores are in northwestern Europe (the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland).

In countries with poorer economic performance in terms of GDP, higher levels of burnout are observed, as well as in countries with a weak democracy and hierarchical countries.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised a new initiative on mental health in her annual state of the European Union speech in September.

It was the first mention of mental health in the history of state of the EU speeches, according to MEP Walsh, which she described as a "victory".

EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides, a Cypriot psychologist, told MEPs on Tuesday (18 October) in a debate about mental health that "experts not surprisingly have warned of an approaching tsunami of mental health challenges".

She said the commission is planning "several EU policies and actions" during the summer.

"We need to improve our understanding mental health issues, and prioritise prevention and promotion of better mental health," the commissioner said, adding that "improving access to mental health care" is also part of the plan.

MEP Walsh is pushing for an EU mental health year in 2024 and a psychosocial directive to make sure mental health is a part of the health and safety rules. A directive would also help create a more balanced protection access to the EU instead of the fragmentation of today.

Workers are differently protected in different EU countries despite a 1989 EU regulation that says all workers should have the same minimum level of protection.

The Eurofound report showed that in Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Spain, there is no policy basis addressing burnout.

Walsh points out that EU health ministers have never met specifically to discuss mental health issues and she wants to change that. An EU mental health strategy, she said, is needed, especially considering the level of misinformation and hatred language around burnout.

"We need 27 EU ministers working collectively with experts and organisations, but not just in silo," Walsh told the parliament on Tuesday.

"Creating an EU mental health strategy is now needed more than ever," she added, "and we need that strategy to be implemented in weeks not years".

Let go

The EU official who had experienced burnout said she was looking forward to going back to work, although she was panicking the first day.

"I'm still observing myself, I am not sure yet how I am doing," she said.

She had to learn "not to take things too seriously", let go of her perfectionist instincts, let go of what others might think, and learn "the power of saying no".

Now colleagues she has never been really close to, are coming to her for advice, for counselling.

"You can't understand it really, unless you go through it," she said.

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