Sixty percent of Germans feel that they are under stress, according to a study commissioned by a health insurance provider. But experts say that in many cases the problem is self-created.
1000 women and men participated in the study, commissioned by the German health insurance provider Techniker Krankenkasse and carried out by the Forsa Institute for Social Research. The most important results: Women in particular see themselves as being affected by high stress levels (63 percent). 10 percent fewer men complained of feeling stressed – which is still a high percentage.
Stress factor number one is work - but number two is people's own expectations. And stress levels vary from region to region: People in the south of Germany feel more stressed than their compatriots in the north.
Stress is not a disease
Stress, 'burnout' and depression are big issues these days," said psychiatrist Hans-Joachim Thimm, senior physician at the Dortmund-based (LWL) special clinic for psychological diseases. "Companies are seeing a massive rise in the number of days they lose to sickness, because of psychological illnesses, " Thimm told DW. "Companies and health insurance providers have to react. Costs are skyrocketing."
Thimm explains that stress in itself is not a disease, but that high levels of stress can cause diseases. A person's mental health, as well as any part of their body, can be affected if the person is exposed to permanent stress, he says, pointing out that the rise in cardiovascular diseases, stomach ulcers and depression is especially striking.
"30 percent of our patients suffer from depression," says Thimm. He adds that he pricks up his ears when people describe what they're suffering from as "burnout". "Many people prefer the term ‘burnout,' because that sounds admirable - you have literally burned yourself out for your company. Depression does not get the same kind of recognition as the 'burnout' syndrome. That's why we generally take a closer look in those cases."
It's an important distinction, because the 'burnout' syndrome requires a different therapy from depression.
"Burnout": more than just a buzzword
Thimm is not surprised that more women than men say they feel stressed. He points out that women are still the most affected by the dual burden of family and having a job; they earn less, and they have fewer career opportunities.
But the result of the study is also determined by a difference in the way man and women react, says Thimm. Women tend to blame themselves for any perceived difficulties - while men tend to blame others.
The term "burnout" tends to be thrown around rather carelessly these days, but Thimm confirms that the phenomenon of increased physical and mental overwork is a reality. The reasons for this are, he says, obvious: intensification of work, a whole range of new technologies, faster workflows, and the requirement to be constantly available.
In most instances, though, Thimm comments that the overload is self-created. Perfectionism produces permanent stress. That's why the psychiatrist has the following recommendation: "80 percent is enough. Don't do everything yourself; share, delegate, take early warning signs seriously, celebrate your successes, and reward yourself." Only a cheerful person can really produce good results, he adds.
Not enough freedom
Günter Koch, chairman of the German Psychologists' Academy, agrees that exaggerated expectations are a common cause of stress. And that's also the case in family life, the psychologist pointed out in a conversation with DW. "Until about 20 years ago, children had to adapt to their parents' life rhythm. Today, parents adapt to their children's life rhythms, which means that in addition to their normal duties, parents today are also their children's chauffeurs and entertainers."
Günter Koch quoted recent studies that indicate people sense inner tension when they leave processes unfinished, and when things can't be thought through to the end. "We have to keep an eye on a large number of different communication channels today: emails, text messages, chats, etc. That means that we constantly interrupt ongoing processes," he said.
Koch warns that this means we never really get anything finished, and so can never rest. He recommends lowering your own expectations, and making room for family and some free time. It's important to have times in your life when you can't be disturbed by the ringing of a cellphone, he says.
Educate against stress
Many German health insurance providers have come up with preventative measures to help their clients out of the stress trap. "We have start by talking to kids in schools, but we also have to work with companies, to teach employees how to deal with what they personally perceive as pressure," said Dorothee Meusch, spokesperson of the Techniker Krankenkasse. In schools, she says, it's important to prevent bullying.
Meusch says health insurance providers want companies to rethink their work schedules. "Why is it still the exception for somebody in a higher management position to work part-time?" she asks. "Why can't work schedules be more flexible, to adapt to the different phases in people's lives?"
Meusch believes there is both a need and a potential for change. However, she adds that it's not just up to employers. Employees also have to find ways of balancing the pressure they're under in their jobs, and of creating space for relaxation in their spare time - because at the end of the day, she says, work always entails a certain level of stress.