Austria Under Stress

Contrary to Popular Belief, ‘Gemütlichkeit’ Has Not Evaded All the Pressures of Modern Life

News | Colin Leigh Peters | July 2007

Every second Austrian suffers from excessive stress in the workplace, leading to more sick days taken off work, abuse of nicotine and alcohol, and psychological disorders like depression or over-eating. These are just some of the findings of a nationwide study led by Dr. Walter Hoffmann of the Bad Aussee University Gesundheitsagentur (Health Agency) and released at a press conference on Jun. 19 at Vienna’s Presseclub Concordia.

The fact that stress levels are so high on average in the Austrian workplace may surprise many ex-pat professionals. One of the most often vaunted advantages to living in Vienna as opposed to, say, London or New York, is the perception of a higher quality, and slower pace, of life. One of the areas where Austrian quality of life is seen to top its rivals is in a less competitive, less pressured working environment. However, the agency’s recent study seems to show otherwise.

Conducted in the spring of this year, the study involved 1,000 Austrians and 416 southern Germans, averaging 44 years of age, to reach those who already had enough working experience for the effects of professional life to be felt. Questions were designed to gauge work-related, private and psychological stress factors, and the results were disturbing: A full half (49.3%) admitted to feeling overly high stress levels at work, 23.9% conceded to suffering from anxiety, and over a quarter, 28.3%, had suffered from depression.

Stress in the workplace is by no means a new phenomenon. What is so disturbing about the new study is the increase in those describing themselves as sufferers, numbers which have grown steadily over the last twenty years.

The reasons, explained Hoffmann, lie in the growing demands posed by modern society: Globalization forcing firms to downsize, resulting in increased workloads for those who remain; workers are expected to educate themselves constantly in order to remain on the ball; The need to keep ourselves continually within reach via email and mobile telephones, or risk losing out; The need to adapt constantly to new situations. It is also not uncommon to work more than one job at a time.

The result is described by the team as DiStress, or negative stress, the form which weakens the immune system and substantially increases the risk of heart attack. DiStress also often leads sufferers to indulge in damaging habits such as smoking, drinking and over-eating. These common causes of death in industrialised nations actually compound the effects of DiStress, the study said.

For example, one of the most interesting figures released by the team shows how stress and smoking are linked. Any smoker knows that lighting up seems to reduce pressure and anxiety. However, the new figures show that those who smoke more, suffer more stress, while the debate over which is cause and which effect remains unresolved.

Nevertheless, the team was keen to point out that it is not only the individual that is affected by excessive stress. The very root of the problem, the work, is also affected.

Apparently, the field of neurology has shown unequivocally that negative stress and anxiety impede one’s thinking. Cognitive performance, decision-making ability and creativity all suffer under the influence of DiStress, through a blockage of transmitting substances in the synapses of nerve cells in the brain.

In a nutshell: whoever fears, loses the ability to think clearly. In such moments, one’s behaviour tends to be determined instead by primitive attack and avoidance mechanisms.

Thus the end result of too much stress is less productive time at work, not more. Therefore, the researchers were at pains to point out that fixing the problem benefits not only those who are personally affected, but also the firms that employ them.

To combat this, the solution seems clear: reduce stress levels, and create a fear-free work environment. The trick lies, however, in recognizing when stress levels in your work place are too high.

To help figure this out, the Gesundheitsagentur has established a Stress Prevention Iniative (Stressprophylaxe-Initiative), that any interested party is welcome to become involved in. Upon request, any company can order a ‘stress and conflict analysis’, a kind of stress ‘check-up’ for their firm. The results are confidential, shown only to the company involved, and if levels are found to be too high, the Gesundheitsagentur will make suggestions as to how they can be reduced, thus not only improving efficiency, but creating more satisfied workers. Once registered, companies also have access to the Internet services provided by the Gesundheitsagentur, including their ‘panic button’ that an employee can activate if stress levels suddenly get too high and emergency intervention is needed!

Details can be found on the Institute website, www.gesundheitsagentur.org. In the meantime, chill a little, for the sake of your arteries. As the agency’s motto goes: if you’re in a rush, slow down!

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    the vienna review July 2007

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