Burnout in Brussels: When the fire goes out

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.

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.

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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Category: A Frontpage, Health, Health care, Leisure, Lifestyle, Opinion, Stress

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