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DEPRESSION

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

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.

EXPLAINED: How are mental health issues at work dealt with in Germany?
Source: dpa-Zentralbild

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. 

“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.”

READ ALSO: Explained: How to receive help with a mental health issue in Germany

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

  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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WORKING IN GERMANY

How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Lots of foreigners in Germany hope to get a job or climb the career ladder. But are there still opportunities for English speakers who don't have fluent German? We spoke to a careers expert to find out.

How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

The pandemic turned our lives upside down. As well as having to isolate and be apart from family members, many people found themselves in need of a new job or decided they want a change in career. 

If you’re in Germany or thinking of moving here, job searching is of course easier with German language skills. But many people haven’t had the chance to learn German – or their German isn’t fluent enough to work in a German-only environment.

So how easy is it to find a job in Germany as an English speaker?

We asked Düsseldorf-based career coach Chris Pyak, managing director of Immigrant Spirit GmbH, who said he’s seen an increase in job offers. 

“The surprising thing about this pandemic is that demand for skilled labour actually got even stronger,” Pyak told The Local.

“Instead of companies being careful, they’ve hired even more than they did before. And the one thing that happened during the pandemic that didn’t happen in the last 10 years I’ve observed the job market was that the number of English offers quadrupled.”

READ ALSO: How to boost your career chances in Germany

Pyak said usually about one percent of German companies hire new starts in English. “Now it’s about four percent,” said Pyak. 

“This happened in the second half of 2021. This is a really positive development that companies are more willing than they used to be. That said it’s still only four percent.”

Pyak said he’s seen a spike in demand for data scientists and analysts as well as project managers. 

So there are some jobs available, but can foreigners do anything else?

Pyak advises non-Germans to sell themselves in a different way than they may be used to. 

A woman works on her CV in Germany.

A woman works on her CV in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

“In your home country you have a network, you have a company you used to work for that people know,” said Pyak. “This might be partly the case in Germany if you worked for an international company. But for most employers you are a blank sheet of paper, they know nothing about you. So unfortunately if they don’t know you or your country, they will assume you are worse (at the job) than Germans. It’s completely unjustified but it’s just how people are. 

“Get the employer to see you as the individual person you are, the professional you are. This requires that you have a conversation with somebody inside the company, ideally the decision maker, meaning the hiring manager or someone in this team.”

Pyak said it’s important to go into details. 

“Don’t think of me as a foreigner, think of me as ‘Mark who has been working in IT for 15 years’,” said Pyak. “Don’t read the job advert (to the manager), ask them what his or her biggest worry is and why is that important? And then dig deeper and offer solutions based on your work experience. Share actual examples where you proved that you can solve this problem.”

READ ALSO: 7 factors that can affect how much you’re getting paid

Pyak says foreigners in Germany can convince managers that they are right for the job – even if their German isn’t great. 

“What I advise clients at the beginning of the interview is to ask very politely if you can ask them (managers) a question. And this question should be: how will you know that I’m successful in this job, what is the most important problem I need to solve for you in order to make myself valuable? And then ask why this problem is so important. And the answer to that achieves a million things for you – first of all you’ve established a measurement by which you should be measured. 

“Then when you get into detailed discussion you can always tie your answer back to the question you can solve, which usually makes up 70 or 80 percent of the job. If you can solve this problem then what does it matter if you do the job in German or English?”

So in answer to our original question – it seems that getting an English-speaking job in Germany can’t be described as easy but it is very possible especially if you have the skills in your chosen field. Plus there are ways to increase your chances. Good luck! 

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