ECB bankers stressed out and overworked | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 24.04.2015
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ECB bankers stressed out and overworked

The European Central Bank is at the forefront of efforts to fight the eurozone crisis. But with more power and responsibility comes more work, possibly too much, unions warn. Claudia Laszczak reports from Frankfurt.

"At first it gives you a real kick, it's an adrenaline rush, the ever-increasing demands," a business analyst at the European Central Bank (ECB), who wishes to remain anonymous, told DW.

"It takes a long time before your body tells you 'enough is enough,'" says the analyst, who has been with the ECB for 16 years. He loves his job and puts his back into it - after all he is part of a massive effort to save the euro and secure Europe's economic future.

Which is why he accepted 12-14-hour working days and never switched off his smartphone, not even at the weekend. It's like being on drugs, you ignore the warning signs, he explains. "In your mind you keep saying 'I can't go on, I've had enough. You're simply exhausted, burnt out."

And then, finally, you crumble. "I just burst into tears when there was nothing to cry about really, but I'd reached my limit," he recalls. His doctor told him he suffered from burnout and sent him off to recuperate in hospital for six weeks.

Looking back, it's what saved him, he says. Slowly during his time in hospital, he learned to read his body's signals again and when he has reached his limits.

Third of ECB staff affected

In the last few years, the European Central bank has taken on more and more responsibilities, from stabilizing the euro and launching its bond-buying program to overseeing more than 120 banks across Europe.

Frankfurt EZB Protest Blockupy

Protests against the ECB turned violent in March

There is a lot of animosity towards the ECB's work, with thousands of people protesting at the recent inauguration of its new headquarters. People were throwing stones and setting police cars alight.

More power, more impact, more work, but also more criticism - it is not surprising that these factors increasingly put staff under pressure, according to the IPSO union.

"The workload is too high, both employees and employers overdo it," IPSO Vice President Johannes Priesemann told DW. He explains that the ECB "has simply been lumbered with too many tasks," but that staff are also highly motivated which leads to "exhaustion and being burnt out."

A poll of around 900 staff found that one third are affected by burnout, another 30 percent are at least overworked.

More staff needed

Although the ECB desperately needs more staff, there are very few permanent jobs. Roughly half of the bank's 2,500 employees are on short-term or temp contracts, according to the ECB.

Of the 10,000 staff working for Germany's Bundesbank, on the other hand, only 146 are on short-term contracts. Union representatives have therefore sent an open letter to the heads of the national central banks - which have to approve the ECB's budget - demanding that 1,000 additional posts be created.

"It's not acceptable that permanent positions are filled with temporary workers, who have to keep applying for the same job," Priesemann says. If key tasks and projects are routinely done by temps, there is a lot of room for error, simply because of the high turnover," he explains, adding that it could lead to "strategic and operational risks."

In the worst-case scenario, the ECB would not be able to fulfill its mandate adequately anymore.

Talking about burnout

Those affected by depression, exhaustion or burnout are often loath to speak about their condition for fear of losing their job. The stigma of being labeled as someone who just does not cut it, is still alive and well.

But it is often highly motivated and energetic workers who suffer, as their perfectionism eggs them on and, thus, puts them at high risk of becoming burnt out.

That's exactly what happened to one former ECB banker who also wants to remain anonymous. "I thought it was important not to show any sign of weakness," he told DW.

"But the panic, the fear, it was real. That's when I sought medical help, as I just couldn't switch off anymore. I only slept half an hour at night and regularly had panic attacks, my clothes soaked from sweating so much," he recalls.

He has now changed jobs and thinks that companies must deal with the issue and warn of the dangers of working at the limit. "Burnout is an issue for society as a whole - it has a lot to do with ever more complex workflows and the sheer amount of information we have to process," he told DW.

The ECB has now said it would open a telephone hotline for staff, according to the ECB's head of communication, Christine Graeff. She declined to comment,however, on whether the bank would create any more positions to ease the overall workload at the ECB.

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