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Burnout in Brussels: When the fire goes out

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young woman in office is overwhelmed with work. burnout in work or study.Brussels burnout is so common, it's almost normal, writes Andy Carling.

The Belgian government has recognized burnout and asked employers to put in place steps to prevent it in the workplace. However, people still fall victim, including myself. While the big institutions and companies have some sort of system in place, in the smaller workplaces, they are sometimes patchy or completely absent.

There is no real definition of burnout, but you know it when you see or experience it. There is debate over if it is another word for depression and arguments over if it's down to poor working conditions or personal factors, but a European Commission report on work-related stress in 1999 suggested that 15 million may be affected at a cost of €20 billion a year.

And that was well before austerity. With cuts, more has to be done by fewer people and it could be argued that nations – such as Greece – may be 'burned out' in some way.

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Everyone in the Brussels bubble is being asked to do more with less and the underlying mood has been grim for a long time and in a hectic, cross-cultural environment, the fear of not working hard enough to keep your job grows, with the spectre of countless newly-qualified fresh faces and unpaid interns at the door.

Add in a working culture where extra hours, working from home and so on are not only expected, but refusing could harm a career and the heavily political, if not outright Machiavellian intrigues that are part of bubble life, it is easy for some to tip over into compulsion, exhaustion, depression and despair.

What's worse, is that it builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until it starts causing real harm.

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In my case, it was a mixture of working conditions, and my own desire to try to prove myself and do a job well, but as life cycled down to work and trying to unwind from work, depression hit and I had to work through it. It would be easy to pass all the blame onto my employer, but the truth is a lot of it was down to myself.

But without time off, I ended up finding work ever harder as my mind spun ever faster, I became blithe and deeply upset at the same time about how I was becoming increasingly frustrated and I felt unfit for polite company.

Without realising it, I became ever distant, practically catatonic at times and drifted away from social activities, friends and family. And all the time, I worked and worked. But I was working increasingly inefficiently, being unable to focus, losing my memory, unable to recollect conversations that had taken place seconds before.

I managed to fight my way back to near-normal, until recently, when my hours and duties were going to be increased from the impossible to something that challenged the laws of space and time, and with an average of a week a year off since I started, I couldn't get any leave so I left.

With no job, home and having to borrow money to return to the UK, this was a frightening prospect, but far better than staying, certain that a breakdown or heart attack was imminent, there was no choice.

I should be on sick leave, but was facing the trauma of moving home and looking for a job. Not exactly what the doctor ordered.

In the week it took to leave, I had several severe panic attacks and times when my whole body would shake so much it looked like I was having a fit and the constant feeling of being so tired I just wanted to cry began to ease slightly.

The best thing was the reaction of colleagues and the various people I knew in Brussels, from good friends to occasional contacts, I was overwhelmed by the understanding and empathy from so many. I was struck by their concern, touched by their compassion.

The last thing I learned in Brussels was the beautiful humanity of so many people in the bubble.

I'm now in the only place that has felt like home, the English Lake District, where I chat with old friends, walk up the fells, breathe the fresh air and learn to feel again and to feel human. My smartphone stays in my pocket or at home, I no longer have to be chained to it, the hardest taskmaster of all.

With everyone in Brussels under increasing pressure, it may be that there is a background hum of burnout that is affecting us all. One of the most touching messages of support, from someone I've only met once, remarked that there are a lot of materially well off and privileged people in Brussels who are dying inside but can't change their lives.

I did. I chose life. You can too.

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Economy

Issuance of green bonds will strengthen the international role of the euro

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Eurogroup ministers discussed the international role of the euro (15 February), following the publication of the European Commission's communication of (19 January), ‘The European economic and financial system: fostering strength and resilience’.

President of the Eurogroup, Paschal Donohoe said: “The aim is to reduce our dependence on other currencies, and to strengthen our autonomy in various situations. At the same time, increased international use of our currency also implies potential trade-offs, which we will continue to monitor. During the discussion, ministers emphasized the potential of green bond issuance to enhance the use of the euro by the markets while also contributing to achieving our climate transition objective.”

The Eurogroup has discussed the issue several times in recent years since the December 2018 Euro Summit. Klaus Regling, the managing director of the European Stability Mechanism said that overreliance on the dollar contained risks, giving Latin America and the Asian crisis of the 90s as examples. He also referred obliquely to “more recent episodes” where the dollar’s dominance meant that EU companies could not continue to work with Iran in the face of US sanctions. Regling believes that the international monetary system is slowly moving towards a multi-polar system where three or four currencies will be important, including the dollar, euro and renminbi. 

European Commissioner for the Economy, Paolo Gentiloni, agreed that the euro’s role could be strengthened through the issuance of green bonds enhancing the use of the euro by the markets while also contributing to achieving our climate objectives of the Next Generation EU funds.

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Ministers agreed that broad action to support the international role of the euro, encompassing progress on amongst other things, Economic and Monetary Union, Banking Union and Capital Markets Union were needed to secure the euros international role.

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EU

European human rights court backs Germany over Kunduz airstrike case

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An investigation by Germany into a deadly 2009 airstrike near the Afghan city of Kunduz that was ordered by a German commander complied with its right-to-life obligations, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday (16 February), writes .

The ruling by the Strasbourg-based court rejects a complaint by Afghan citizen Abdul Hanan, who lost two sons in the attack, that Germany did not fulfil its obligation to effectively investigate the incident.

In September 2009, the German commander of NATO troops in Kunduz called in a U.S. fighter jet to strike two fuel trucks near the city which NATO believed had been hijacked by Taliban insurgents.

The Afghan government said at the time 99 people, including 30 civilians, were killed. Independent rights groups estimated between 60 and 70 civilians were killed.

The death toll shocked Germans and ultimately forced its defence minister to resign over accusations of covering up the number of civilian casualties in the run-up to Germany’s 2009 election.

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Germany’s federal prosecutor general had found that the commander did not incur criminal liability, mainly because he was convinced when he ordered the airstrike that no civilians were present.

For him to be liable under international law, he would have had to be found to have acted with intent to cause excessive civilian casualties.

The European Court of Human Rights considered the effectiveness of Germany’s investigation, including whether it established a justification for lethal use of force. It did not consider the legality of the airstrike.

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Of 9,600 NATO troops in Afghanistan, Germany has the second-largest contingent behind the United States.

A 2020 peace agreement between the Taliban and Washington calls for foreign troops to withdraw by May 1, but U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is reviewing the deal after a deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan.

Germany is preparing to extend the mandate for its military mission in Afghanistan from March 31 until the end of this year, with troop levels remaining at up to 1,300, according to a draft document seen by Reuters.

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EU

Digitalization of EU justice systems: Commission launches public consultation on cross-border judicial co-operation

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On 16 February, the European Commission launched a public consultation on the modernization of EU justice systems. The EU aims to support member states in their efforts to adapt their justice systems to the digital age and improve EU cross-border judicial co-operation. Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders (pictured) said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of digitalization, including in the field of justice. Judges and lawyers need digital tools to be able to work together faster and more efficiently.

At the same time, citizens and businesses need online tools for an easier and more transparent access to justice at a lower cost. The Commission strives to push this process forward and support member states in their efforts, including as regards facilitating their cooperation in cross-border judicial procedures by using digital channels.” In December 2020, the Commission adopted a communication outlining the actions and initiatives intended to advance the digitalization of justice systems across the EU.

The public consultation will gather views on the digitalization of EU cross-border civil, commercial and criminal procedures. The results of the public consultation, in which a broad range of groups and individuals can participate and which is available here until 8 May 2021, will feed into an initiative on digitalisation of cross-border judicial cooperation expected at the end of this year as announced in the 2021 Commission's Work Programme.

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