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EXPLAINED: How are mental health issues at work dealt with in Germany?

EXPLAINED: How are mental health issues at work dealt with in Germany?
Source: dpa-Zentralbild
Has the steep rise in workplace absenteeism due to mental health issues led to changing attitudes in Germany? Or should you still keep your mental health issues to yourself? Experts and readers weighed in.

In the last forty years, the proportion of sick days taken on mental health grounds in Germany has increased more than eight fold and mental health issues are now the second biggest cause of workplace absenteeism.

But has the dramatic increase in cases translated into a better awareness of such issues in the workplace? And does this mean that you should be open with your boss about your mental health issue?

We spoke to two experts and some of our readers to try to answer these questions.

What accounts for the increase in mental health issues in the workplace?

Dr. Tim Hagemann, Professor of Labour and Health Psychology and author of “the Art of Work”, gave us a detailed insight into some of the factors which could account for the steep rise in mental health-related absences from work in recent years. 

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“Firstly, doctors are becoming more and more sensitized to recognising psychological problems. Nowadays, doctors are more likely to be able to link physical symptoms to an underlying mental health problem and are, in general, more likely to diagnose depression.”

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Dr. Hagemann added that many aspects of our modern workplace also play a significant role in the increase in mental health problems. 

The normal working day is now beset by technological distractions, he said. The average worker reads between 40 and 50 emails per day, each of which diverts their focus from the task at hand.  

Thus, by the end of an eight-hour day, workers feel exhausted, but have not achieved as much as they would have in the past, which leads to them feeling more stressed and unhappy.

Source: DPA

How are mental health issues seen in the workplace in Germany?

The Bundesteilhabegesetz (Federal Participation Law) came into force in 2017, with the aim of enabling people with disabilities to integrate better into society and to rejoin the workforce after a period of absence.

Although the legislation mainly focused on people with physical disabilities, it also included numerous measures for people which can be – and have been applied – to mental health issues.

Many saw the law as a step in the right direction, but  Dr. Hagemann feels it doesn’t go quite far enough, and more lobbying is required for legislation which protects those with mental health issues. 

On the question of how open employers are to helping staff members suffering with mental health issues, it seems that, in general, managers are becoming more and more proactive.

“Mental health issues are something which cost employers and is therefore something they want to be able to deal with effectively and to take a preventative approach to,” said Dr. Thomas Rigotti, Professor of Industrial, Organizational and Business Psychology at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

Rigotti told The Local that his institute is often approached by managers seeking advice on how best to manage mental health issues amongst their workforce. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the willingness to address the issue comes from all sectors, including finance, science and production. 

The Berlin based Start-up Evermood, which helps businesses to take a preventative approach to workplace-related mental health issues, has also found that their services are in demand from a wide range of business sectors. 

All Mental Health Issues?

Depression, in particular, is increasingly becoming a recognized health issue in Germany. Following the suicide of German National Goalkeeper Robert Enke in 2009, depression became a high-profile subject which was widely discussed in the German media.

READ ALSO: 'I arrived in Berlin expecting a giddy European adventure. Instead I got depression.'

“Since then it has become a more recognized illness. The use of the term “Burnout” has also become more prominent and has served the function of forming a more elegant description of work-related depression, Dr. Hagemann explained.

Media coverage from 2009 following the death of national goalkeeper, Robert Enke. Source: DPA

However, not all mental illnesses are necessarily treated equally and for conditions such as Schizophrenia, the story is quite different. 

Dr. Hagemann explained that such mental illnesses are still very much stigmatised, “as it is a difficult subject area and it is an illness which may require employees to be absent from work for two to three months at a time”. 

Should you tell your boss about your mental health issue?

Dr. Rigotti is of the opinion that, as far as possible, it is best to be open and transparent with one’s employer and to let them know what they can do to support you through this situation. 

“But of course”, he added “the individual relationship you have with your boss plays a big role in whether or not you feel you can confide in them about your mental health issue. If you feel that they would be unsympathetic, then you should seek out other people to confide in, such as a Betriebsrat (work council) or an Ombudsperson.

If you are having therapy, you can also ask them for advice about how to have the conversation in the work environment.” 

Likewise, Dr. Rigotti advocates openness with colleagues too, insofar as you sense that they will be supportive. 

READ ALSO: What are the main reasons internationals in Germany turn to therapy?

This is sadly however, not always the case. One of our readers from Berlin, who wishes to remain anonymous,  told us about their experience in an IT startup.

“I had been suffering from depression on and off for years and it recently reappeared and meant I had to take time off work,” she said. “One day I overheard one of my colleagues making disparaging remarks about depressed people in the office and I immediately decided that this was not a safe environment for me to openly discuss my problems.”

Source: DPA

In such situations, Rigotti advises that you confide in your private social circle outside of work for support. 

Another of our Berlin-based readers, a sociologist and cultural pedagogue, had a very different reception when she told her bosses about her mental health problems and advocated sharing.

“A couple of years ago I suffered a burnout which was triggered by an interpersonal issue at work,” she said.

“After that, I entered psychotherapy and I decided to be completely open with my employers about my ongoing mental health issues. I never experienced anything but support from my bosses and colleagues and discovered that many had been through the same thing at some point in their lives too.”

So what’s the best thing to do?

Germany is generally on a good track in terms of how mental health issues are dealt with in the workplace and in the wider society, but there is still a lot of work to be done. 

The ideal scenario of a proactive boss who is willing to support their staff with their mental health needs is a reality in many instances but, sadly, far from it in many others. 

The best approach in terms of discussing your mental health issue in the workplace is therefore dependent on the situation within your particular working environment. Do what feels best to you, taking into consideration your needs and taking advice from those close to you outside of work.


Member comments

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  1. Where I work mental health issues are looked at as an excuse for not doing your job. It does not matter what is going on with you, if it inhibits your job performance they just find a way to get rid of you.

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