Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Stockholm Diary #14: Burned Out
This is the closest I've ever come to being burned out: I was working for a nonprofit organization back in the 90s that advocated for and assisted survivors of trauma, including people who had endured childhood sexual abuse or combat (primarily the Vietnam War at that point, though I imagine they have their hands full today with Iraq and Afghanistan war vets). I never dealt directly with the traumatized people, I was working there as the admin, but after a couple years, I started to feel weighed down by the sad stories that were heard in those offices on a daily basis. At the time, the organization had four full-time employees; two of the people could compartmentalize the pain and suffering and two of us could not, and we both wound up quitting (the other woman eventually opened a gift shop in a posh part of town). Anyway, I switched careers, and that was that. When I get stressed out these days, I go for a walk, or have a cup of tea and read Defamer. When you are self-employed with 50+ clients, you have to stay on your toes.

One of the things that fascinates me most about Sweden is the phenomenon of burnout. Everywhere I look around Stockholm, people seem to be taking it easy; the cafes are full of people enjoying coffee or wine at all hours of the day, and as I've previously pointed out, they're not working on laptops, they're usually chatting with friends. On a (rare!) sunny day in the park, I spotted numerous people on park benches working on crossword puzzles and reading gossip mags. And yet, on any given day, 13 percent of working-age Swedes collect sick benefits—a greater percentage than in any other Western nation (Newsweek). From the same article:
The biggest reason for taking time off: stress, anxiety, depression and a condition called "dejection" made up 33 to 40 percent of all sick-leave cases in 2006. Anna-Maria Lindsten, a 42-year-old health-services worker, collected 80 percent of her salary in sick pay for more than six years after being diagnosed in 2000. The government's attempt to limit paid time off to just a few weeks left her alarmed. "You can't just force people to go back to the workplace that made them sick," she says. "They need to give people help to build themselves back up, and that can take time."
Now, if you're an American who is used to working 10-hour-plus days for crummy pay and no benefits, stretching your pitiful salary to the limit to afford child care, and having to fight for a week or two of vacation, you're probably thinking, "Boo hoo, poor Swedes." And yet, when a more conservative government was voted in and tried to crack down on sick leave, people got angry (which led to some backtracking).

If you're a regular reader, you know we at the Conical Glass do not believe in things like "research," instead offering the casually tossed-off or half-assed opinion -- you don't want us to become burned out at blogging, do you? However, in this case, I decided it was important to put in some extra effort and get the true Swedish point of view. I asked my aunt, who retired 10 years ago from her private-sector job, if she had ever known anyone on the job who experienced burnout, and she said no, the condition didn't exist back in her day. As in the U.S. today, you struggled through and counted the days 'til retirement (years ago, a cousin of ours could literally tell you how many months, days and hours she had left on the job). Then I asked Joe to interview his work colleagues. He said none of them had personally been burned out but they all seemed to think it was a serious issue and expressed a lot of sympathy for people who experienced job stress.

I asked myself, when I was at my old job, if I'd had the opportunity to go on disability and earn 80% of my pay, would I have done it? Heck yeah. I mean, eventually I probably would have gotten bored and found something else to do, but if there's no stigma attached, why not take the leave? If you have a crummy boss, annoying co-workers and no hope of job advancement... well, why go to the trouble of finding a new job when the government is willing to pay you not to work.

I'm sure a certain percentage of the people who are utbränd are indeed so anxious and depressed that they are seriously ill, but when you're talking about such vast numbers in the workforce, I refuse to believe that nobody is gaming the system. But as long as most Swedes are OK with their tax dollars going to support their burned-out colleagues, it seems doubtful that a drastic change in the number of people taking paid sick leave is going to occur.

Further reading from the BBC and The Local
posted by 125records @ 6:43 AM  
  • At 7:37 PM, Blogger 2fs said…

    I'm sure you're correct that some people take this leave just because they can, gaming the system...but I also think that it's probably fewer than you might guess - and almost surely fewer than it would be in America. To me one of the most corrosive aspects of the conservative/corporatist rule is the extreme selfishness and cynicism it engenders and encourages. If you can take advantage of something, even if it's harmful to others to do so, why you're a fool and a sucker not to do so. Plus those idiot lazy bastards in government who designed the system clearly are too stupid to figure out what you're smart enough to see: that you can take advantage of a benefit even if you don't actually suffer from what it's supposed to alleviate, because the elitist liberal snobs in government are too lazy to make sure people can't do so. Of course, this is weirdly double-edged and hypocritical: I can take advantage of it (I'd be a sucker not to), but those other people who do, they're just lazy bastards. You know: people who take advantage of welfare are lazy cheaters; people who take advantage of tax breaks are shrewd, canny self-interested businessmen.

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