Robust Germany faces rising ‘burnout’ problem

Germany, holding up better than its eurozone partners in the current economic crisis, is battling the increasingly widespread phenomenon of "burnout" which is supposedly costing its economy billions of euros each year. AFP's Aurelia End reports.

Robust Germany faces rising 'burnout' problem
Photo: DPA

According to data compiled by the economic institute of the public-sector health insurer AOK last year, psychological illness is on the rise among Germany’s workforce.

Nearly one out of every 10 sick days in Germany in 2010 was due to psychological illness, the WIdO institute calculated. And between 2004 and 2010, the number of sick days related to psychological illness increased ninefold.

“Time pressure and stress are on the increase and the danger is that people will suffer burnout due to their jobs on the one hand and family pressures on other,” says WIdO’s deputy chief Helmut Schroeder.

Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the phenomenon and tackle it, particularly in small and medium-sized companies which form the backbone of the mighty German economy.

While big companies had already largely recognised the need to act, “70 percent of small and medium-sized companies aren’t doing anything. They often don’t know what to do,” von der Leyen told AFP in an interview.

“We’re losing a lot of time and money in Germany before businesses recognise that it’s not just about migraines or psychosomatic back problems,” she said, estimating burnout was costing businesses €8.0-10.0 billion ($10.5-13.1 billion) in lost output each year.

“Nothing is more expensive than sending a good worker into retirement in their mid-40s because they’re burned out. These cases are no longer just the exception. It’s a trend that we have to do something about,” she said.

In the past, the focus of the labour protection strategies developed by authorities, employers, employee representatives and insurers had been on the physical well-being of the workforce.

The new aim is to make psychological health a top priority from 2013.

Von der Leyen argued it was not about tightening legislation, as Germany’s current labour protection laws were already sufficiently strict and required employers to ensure the psychological well-being of their workers.

“But the laws aren’t sufficiently enforced, largely out of ignorance,” the minister said.

Asked what is making people ill, von der Leyen suggested a number of different factors, from monotony, time pressure, poor management, a lack of solidarity among workers, but also things such as open-floor office space and expectations that employees be available around the clock, receiving and answering work-related emails and phone calls even in their leisure time.

The powerful IG Metall labour union insists that concrete and binding regulations be drawn up to protect people’s mental health at the work place.

According to the union’s estimates, the health costs from burnout amount to €27 billion a year.

“While everyone is talking about burnout, neither firms nor policymakers are doing anything about it,” said IG Metall board member Hans-Juergen Urban.

Nevertheless, for some psychiatrists, “burnout” is simply a word in vogue, a fashionable and more acceptable moniker for what is simply a form of depression without the stigma attached to mental illness.

“Burnout is not a disease and never will be. It’s a vague, unclearly defined syndrome that for good reason is not included in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases,” said psychologist Markus Pawelzik.

But the public health insurer AOK disagrees.

“The burnout syndrome is an illness that must be taken seriously,” it writes on its website.

It could bring with it serious complications, such as cardiac arrhythmia or gastro-intestinal problems, AOK said.

“It can also lead to manifest depression including suicidal thoughts. It is not merely as fashionable disease, but was diagnosed in around 10 percent of the workforce as far back as the 1960s and 1970s. And estimates see the proportion rising to around a quarter of the workforce in the coming years,” AOK said.

The term has certainly become a buzzword for the media in recent years, with weekly magazine Der Spiegel dedicating two issues to the phenomenon last year and the Society for the German Language ranking it sixth in its annual list of Words of the Year.

Recently, well-known personalities such as football trainer Ralf Rangnick and the former head of media giant Bertelsmann, Hartmut Ostrowski, have spoken openly about their affliction.

But the high-brow daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung questioned why burnout was being written so much about in Germany, while in France, which is economically a lot worse off, “it’s hardly a preoccupation at all.”


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7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.