Written by Sarah Crew, editor of the Bulletin and guest contributor to the blog.
It is something of a contradiction. Work is central to our lives and identity, but it can also be the source of serious ill health. With more and more people being declared unfit to work due to stress, anxiety and depression, the need to address good mental health practices is becoming urgent.
While burnout can be difficult to define and diagnose, it is widely accepted as being chronic stress resulting in physical and mental exhaustion and breakdown, often accompanied by alienation from workplace activities and reduced performance. The expatriate population is not immune, and expats are often vulnerable due to the stress of adapting to another country, the lack of family and social networks, and by frequently working in a high-pressure environment.
As editor of The Bulletin magazine and other publications, I have had the opportunity to write about workplace stress. The reason I tackle this topic is that my own life has been transformed by my adult son’s mental health condition. Juggling full-time work with my role as a carer means I have no choice but to look after myself. Support networks are invaluable, while psychosocial training and a mindfulness course have taught me coping strategies that extend to work as well as home.
Raising awareness of mental health issues and attempting to combat the stigma surrounding them is a rewarding experience: seeking the positive in what is otherwise a deeply sad experience. I joined the Brussels-based NGO Mental Health Europe (MHE) to learn about good practices around the continent. It’s the leading organisation in Europe advocating for the rights of people living with mental ill health and promotes the economic and social case for good mental health in the workplace.
Its research from the EU-OSHA survey shows that work-related stress is the second most reported work-related health problem and has become one of the leading causes for absenteeism and early retirement in the EU. It reports that 79% of managers in Europe are concerned about stress in their workplace, but less than 30% of workplaces have procedures in place to tackle it.
Employees in the EU highlighted numerous factors that cause stress, including unmanageable workloads, unrealistic expectations, ambiguity about their role, low job satisfaction and personal accomplishment, lack of recognition, an unhealthy work-life balance and workplace harassment.
MHE’s campaign promotes positive health by encouraging bosses to champion positive mental health, creating a culture of openness that stops mental health being a taboo subject. It focuses on managers’ attitudes as the most important factor in ensuring a positive workplace that respects the individual, encourages feelings of fairness and a work-life balance, and pays attention to interpersonal relationships.
Communications manager Ophélie Martin points to the evidence that inexpensive mental health programmes in the workplace are cost-effective. “Mental health at work should be addressed through a public health perspective: positive mental health will benefit employees, employers and society as a whole,” she says.
Brussels mental health service and helpline Community Help Service (CHS) is well-known within the international community. One of its clinical psychologists, Nicole Josephson, says young, ambitious expat professionals are classic burnout victims. “They put everything into their work, and as they come from another country they don’t yet have a social circle, which makes it harder to keep that all-important work-life balance.”
She says it’s more socially acceptable to admit to burnout than having a nervous breakdown or depression. “Personality factors include being anxious, which tends to make you more perfectionist, hard-working and ambitious,” she explains. “Having difficulty expressing your discomfort and liking being in control predispose you to overwork, leading to your whole world becoming skewed as all your energy goes into one place. If work is problematic and you cannot find satisfaction in another area or another relationship to help counterbalance this, all you are getting is reinforcement of your work identity.”
Burnout was initially diagnosed in the health and social service sector, but is now experienced in nearly all jobs and levels of responsibility, usually when there is a lack of sense of control. “It helps when you feel you can make decisions for yourself,” Josephson says. She believes managers are more susceptible when they have to report to someone else or if they have difficulty managing their team. “I’ve seen a lot of people burn out if their authority is disregarded, if they don’t feel they can move their staff in the right direction,” she says.
In more severe cases, recovering from burnout can be lengthy. “Some people can get over it quite quickly, but others may need at least a year, especially if they have ignored their own internal messages that things are going wrong. Recovery may be devastating and in a psychological sense is almost like learning to walk again.”
While Josephson thinks Belgium has been slow to recognise the importance of supporting people in the workplace, “reflecting the national bias not to talk about problems”, she has noticed a changing attitude. “It’s maybe a swinging of the pendulum, but we are seeing more people in Belgium taking parental leave and working shorter hours. Millennials in particular are questioning the work ethic of the older generation and showing more of an interest in traditional values and going back to nature, so there is some optimism for the future,” she says.
My own experience is that it is definitely becoming more acceptable to talk about personal difficulties, which is the first step in counteracting what is generally a very isolating occurrence. If I have any advice it is the importance of developing self-awareness, looking kindly on colleagues and friends encountering problems, and not hesitating to seek support. I also have to confess that even if I know the theory, I still push the boundaries of my own work-life balance. The stress of deadlines can be quite addictive and I’m not alone in feeling that I perform best when working under pressure. So the inherent contradiction around work is definitely a question of balance and one that requires continual monitoring.
Classic warning signs
Feeling sad or depressed
Anger and irritability
Loss of sense of purpose
Anxiety, particularly feelings of panic
Memory and concentration problems
Loss of sex drive
Using alcohol or drugs to cope
Take 30 minutes out every day
Try to live in the present
Switch off your phone at night and try not to reply to emails at all times
Don’t give up sports and hobbies
During moments of stress, stop and assess your mood
Spend time with family and friends
Seek help if alcohol or drug consumption increases