Maybe even more than one person; stress is ‘one of the most common work-related health problems in EU countries’, according to the 2010 World Health Organisation (WHO) report Mental health and work: Impact, issues and good practices.
More specifically, 20% of people in the EU15 countries reported feeling stressed at work in 2005. This rises to 30% for the EU10 countries, as stated in a 2009 report by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
Not everyone who is stressed continues to develop burnout, but burnout rates are also high. In fact, 13% of Sweden’s active working population scored high on a burnout questionnaire conducted by BioMed Central in 2010. Their survey found peaks among younger workers, particularly women between 35-44 years old, a staggering 21.5% of which reported feeling burnt out.
To say the least, the cost of stress and burnout run into millions through healthcare, social welfare claims, lost tax, and lost productivity. Not to mention the strain of stress on individuals themselves.
EU-funded 2014 research by Matrix found that 14% of stressed employees go on to develop depression. The WHO agrees: ‘Some of the many effects of stress include numerous physical ailments as well as mental health problems such as depression and increased rates of suicide’, they said in their 2000 report. The European Commission also stated in 2000 that work-related stress ‘affects at least 40 million workers in the 15 EU Member States and costs at least 20 billion euro annually’.
The prevalence of stress-related illnesses, especially among young people, is alarming to say the least. One factor adding to the situation is that baby boomers are getting ready to retire, and younger generations are already struggling to pay for it.
At the moment four employees pay for one retiree in developed countries. This is expected to double by 2050, when only two people pay for one retiree, according to Problems of Contemporary World Futurology by Yakunin. These developments are troubling, even without taking the burnout rates into consideration.
Why is it that there are so many burnouts nowadays? Why are so many that fall victim to stress relatively young (between the ages of 18 and 44)? A new book by sociologist Thierry Venin of the University of Pau et des pays de l’Adour, sheds new light on this development.
According to Venin, who recently published a book about information overload called Un Monde Meilleur?, our phones, laptops, apps and e-mail contribute greatly to burnout. In the documentary Brain Overload, he states that the amount of information we deal with on a daily basis is much greater than ever before. Additionally, we are constantly exposed to information. In our society the expectation of being connected and responsive all the time leaves little or no downtime for employees.
I can concur; as I’m writing this I am also on e-mail, Slack, Skype, Asana, Upwork, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and can be reached by text and phone calls. If you think this is a bit much, I have two other business mail accounts I’m not logged into and one phone out of two is on silent mode.
Popular belief holds that youngsters can cope better with the constant connectivity because they grew up with this kind of technology, but Venin states that they actually suffer worse from cognitive overload. A study of 30,000 employees by the GFK Institute, and featured in the documentary, found that 39% of employees under 30 struggled to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
The documentary Brain Overload also investigates possible ways to reduce the strain. Unsurprisingly, the solution is being less connected and not instantly responding to every ping, bleep and vibration. You might think that you’re great at multitasking but, according to the documentary, you’re actually not.
I never thought of replying to an email or checking my phone as multitasking, but every shift of attention like this is a form of multitasking that requires considerable brain power to achieve. Jumping between tasks is one of the reasons cognitive overload and stress occur.
Reducing your responsiveness often requires communicating your availability with co-workers and clients. There are people who check their email twice a day. An automated response informs mailers of the times they’ll get back to you. This is not only in the interest of individuals, and helps prevent burnout to some extent, but it actually increases productivity.
One of the consequences of constant disruption is a very limited attention span, professor Gloria Mark explains in the documentary. In 2012, She found that we could only maintain focus on a computer screen for 1 minute and 15 seconds, on average. In 2004, we were able to focus on any activity for an average of 3 minutes. And for Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, this average is even shorter; a mere 45 seconds.
Additional consequences of cognitive overload can include reduced memory function. There can even be relationship difficulties because of arguments over the intrusion of work into the private sphere.
Focussing on one task at the time, and reducing responsiveness can help you cope with the amount of information available to us. Another measure for combating overload is dividing tasks into smaller tasks, as that can focus our attention. So ‘reclaim the right to be disconnected’, as stated in the documentary Brain Overload, and prevent burnout caused by our incessant need to be online.