Surveys paint blurry picture of workplace stress

Danes claim to be the least stressed in Europe, but last year saw more Danes than ever file worker compensation cases for psychological symptoms

A recent survey by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) revealed that Danes perceive work-related stress to be less of a factor in Denmark than in other EU countries.

According to OSHA’s study, only 38 percent of Danes surveyed thought that work-related stress was common at their place of employment. Some 55 percent reported that work-related stress was rare.

That is nearly the mirror image of the results from other European countries, where 51 percent of all EU respondents thought that work-related stress was common and just 45 percent considered it rare.

The OSHA results also showed that Denmark had the lowest proportion of workers, at just five percent, who think that work-related stress is ‘very common’. The European average was 16 percent, and our neighbours in Germany and Sweden were both close to the average, at 17 and 15 percent respectively.

But do these numbers really reflect the reality? Michael Danielsen, an occupational psychologist with the mental health group PsykiatriFonden, was surprised by the findings of the OSHA study and feels that Danes are just as likely to be affected by work stress as other Europeans.

“It could have something to do with how we Danes perceive work-related stress,” Danielsen told The Copenhagen Post. “People might not recognise that what’s going on with them mentally could be work-related stress.”

Two recent surveys from trade unions back Danielsen’s suspicion that emotional stress is very much a part of the Danish workplace.

Trade union magazine Fagbladet 3F reported this month that 22 percent of all reported occupational illnesses are psychological, including stress and depression. Nearly 4,500 Danes filed worker compensation claims for psychological symptoms last year, which represented the highest number ever.

Danielsen said that so many worker compensation claims could have been filed because it is “less stigmatising” to say you have work-related stress than other types of mental problems. But because it’s hard to prove that the psychological symptoms are a direct result of one’s job, a whopping 96 percent of those compensation claims were rejected.

“When one struggles with psychological symptoms, there can be many causes,” Merete Ross, the head of the national board of industrial injuries, Arbejdsskadestyrelsen, told Fagbladet 3F. “Work can be one of them without being the primary factor, which is why many of the psychological illnesses are not recognised.”

Another recent survey, this one carried out among 1,700 members of the labour union DJØF, which represents lawyers and economists, found that just over a third of members’ sick days were a result of psychological issues, with work stress leading the way.

Karen Albertsen, a workplace researcher at TeamArbejdsliv, said it’s often a case of employers demanding too much from their workers.

“It’s natural for companies to focus on efficiency, but when it goes over the line we get stress-related absences,” Albertsen told DJØF’s trade magazine. “In the long run, that can be very expensive [for businesses], but in the short term, the businesses win. Because even though there are [stress-affected employees] who underperform, the rest of the workers continue to push extra hard because they fear losing their jobs.”

Danielsen said that the technological advances of recent years, which essentially put one’s workplace in one’s pocket at all times, has led to a definite increase in work-related stress.

“There has been a blurring of the private and professional worlds, and that certainly has something to do with it,” he told The Copenhagen Post. “Many people are now able to work much more than they used to, which can add to the stress.

To minimise work-related stress, Danielsen advised employees to focus on their own level of expectations and to be proactive in reaching out if they feel overwhelmed by their workload. He also advises employers to implement clear policies and procedures on work stress and suggests that employees and their employers hold frequent meetings to gauge workload, resources and other stress factors.