BERLIN - In grandpa’s time, somebody would call out "End of the work day!” – as a signal in many companies for workers to pack it up and go home.
It’s not so easy today, says Wolfgang Panter, the president of the Association of German Business and Company Doctors (VDBW): “Boundaries between work and free time have dissolved.” What that means is that some workers are never really off the job.
Just to how much extent boundaries have disappeared is evident from a report on absenteeism published by AOK, Germany’s largest health insurer. According to the report, every third worker (33.8%) in Germany has in the last month received numerous work calls or e-mails outside working hours. Every third worker (32.3%) regularly does overtime. 12% of those in the survey took work home, and every 10th worker put in hours on Sundays and holidays.
The classic “nine-to-five” office job is pretty much history by now, but the increased lack of boundaries between work and play time has brought with it an upswing in psychological complaints. People who work on Sundays or holidays, or otherwise give priority to their job over their private time, often suffer from feelings of despondency, headaches, or irritability.
Panter recommends that individuals should create strict rules for themselves and stick to them – for example, turning off the office cell phone after hours, or not logging on to the company network on weekends. Reading office e-mails before turning in for the night should also go on the no-no list, and weaning yourself off the habit usually brings a better night’s sleep, says Panter.
Increased job pressure is not just a subjective impression – it’s a fact. According to the Federal Chamber of Psychotherapists, more and more absenteeism in Germany is due to mental illness. Statistically, it accounts for 12.5% of missed working days, with burnout symptoms on a sharp rise.
However, reliable statistics concerning increased stress in the workplace are not available, says Birgit Köper of the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) in Dortmund. "Stress is a subjective phenomenon," she says. However, the increase in mental pressure and illness is undeniable. And while a great deal has been done with regard to protecting workers, workplaces are just beginning to deal with prevention against the new health risks.
Less hours = more hours
Wolfgang Panter of the VDBW believes that one of the reasons for the present state of affairs is that the number of working hours has decreased over the past couple of decades and there is thus less time to get the work done – particularly as the complexity of many jobs has increased enormously. He gave the example of electricians, every one of whom used to be able to read a circuit diagram with no trouble. Now, however, some of these wiring plans have become so complicated that many electricians can’t figure them out. "The technological development of the past 10 to 15 years has been tremendously fast," Panter says. "For many workers that means adjusting to constant changes."
No sooner has someone gotten used to a software program, than they have to learn to work with a new one. And while modern communication technology makes many things easier, "there is a high degree of complexity to it as well," Panter continues. Cell phones have brought sweeping changes to the working world, not least because they make it possible to reach people outside working hours: "It used to be that if somebody was on vacation, they were on vacation and couldn’t be reached." And anybody whose work phone is a smartphone that he or she can read e-mails on will do that as well.
For an ever increasing number of workers, a culture of permanent availability has become the norm. Panter believes that bosses who are used to being called at all hours pass the model on to their subordinates, and that this is a contributing factor to the disappearing notion of “free time.” Anyone who is constantly available for job-related issues has, in effect, no free time.
And yet there are many advantages to being more mobile on the job and having greater flexibility with regard to working hours, says Svenja Hofert, a coach in Hamburg. "Lots of workers actually target that kind of situation," she says. And in some sectors like IT, it’s not unusual. "Many people think having core working hours from nine to four is just plain stupid." However, that model often leads people to putting in more hours, particularly as not everybody is perfectly organized and things can rapidly get out of hand. "But when it gets too much, the situation should be addressed," Hofert advises.
Yet, not many people dare to talk it over with their boss and just keep slogging – and this is one of the reasons for the many burnout cases. And it can be difficult to complain about having too much work because it doesn’t tend to go over well. "So when talking to your boss it’s better to talk about assigning priorities: which tasks are the most important and need to be completed first. There are always things that don’t need to be done right away." For his part, Panter recommends more "attentive leadership," with bosses keeping a critical eye peeled for increased work loads so they can take relevant measures when the need arises.