The number of Germans on sick leave has reach record levels in early 2012 as 3.6 percent of the entire working population has claimed an inability to work. Psychological problems due to stress are rising.
German internet platforms like stressforum.de attest to concern among some experts that excessive stress on the job has become the rule rather than an exception in Germany.
Forum entries such as "I can't cope with the workload on my desk anymore - I could puke" or "I have a splitting headache, can't relax anymore," offer concrete illustrations of the findings of recent German studies that stresses on the job have multiplied immensely.
"More than half of all German employees experience undue stress at work, and 63 percent of them say that they have to do more than they used to within the same amount of working time," a nationwide survey carried out by the German Trade Union Federation (DGB) said in March.
Serious warning signs
According to Chistine Richter, expert at the Network for the Promotion of Vocational Health, there is evidence that psychological and psychosomatic illnesses in Germany have "increased ten times" since the 1970s. The network is a cooperation of German public health insurance funds and government agencies.
There are warning signs: "If you can't sleep well for a longer period because you can't get a specific problem out of your head, or if you retreat in you social life," said Richter, adding that a person should see a doctor for a solution.
Workers in social professions such as old age nursing and social work are particularly affected, said Richter, because they are "strongly burdened both psychologically and physically."
"Physicians suffer less than other medical staff members who have less say in running things on the job," she added.
In addition, women had more stress than men as they often had to care for families in addition to doing their jobs.
According to figures released by the Center for Disease Management at the Technical University Munich, economic damage resulting from psychological illnesses in Germany amounts to between 8 billion euros ($9.9 billion) and 20 billion euros annually.
In efforts to stem work-related illnesses, 18 European countries signed a declaration to promote mental health among workers in 2010. But Richter said that European businesses would only gradually understand the "competitive advantage" of prevention.
"One euro spent on health prevention creates two and a half times the amount in profits. Companies which can offer their employees something in this respect stand to benefit from getting better people in a dwindling market of skilled labor," she said.
Calls for legal protection
Germany's powerful metalworker's union IG Metal has demanded legal protection from "working without limits," notably in the sphere of project-related work.
Calling for an "anti-stress initiative," IG Metall board member Hans-Jürgen Urban said, "Works councils must be trained to identify psychological stresses and shown how to introduce preventative measures against them."
In addition, he demanded that politics speed up the introduction of anti-stress legislation to curb mental threats.
However, Christine Richter said that such legislation was hard to flesh out. Her network had chosen an incentive-based strategy, annually awarding a certificate named "Move Europe Partner Excellence" to companies caring for their employee's mental health.
She noted that the Henkel Group, which has won the award several times, was offering seminars and individual counseling to employees suffering stress-related mental and social problems.
In advice to senior managers, Richter highlighted the need for what she described as "a time of absolute relaxation" to be granted to their staff.
"Managers must tell their workers that they don't insist on them being available via text message or email after 8 pm, in order to give them time to look after their families," she added.
Author: Claudia Hennen / uhe