Is corona lighting a fire?

Fay writes*

Currently, 17 percent of the Dutch workforce suffers from a burnout. Symptoms vary from irritability and disrupted sleep patterns to emotional lability. However, the central characteristic of a burnout is the experience of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion [pdf].

High work pressure with little autonomy and support from colleagues is found to increase the risk of burnouts, whereas being socially connected with family, friends and colleagues decreases these chances [pdf].

Burnouts are a relatively big problem in the Netherlands in comparison to other European countries. This is caused by our social structure. Under pressure from the neo-liberal market, we have traded social cohesion for flexibility, the productivity that results from it, and illusive freedom. Where long-term contracts and labor unions were the norm, we now all compete independently for the next better job. We are trapped in a system in which we tell ourselves to work harder and to be perpetually available because if we won’t, the next freelancer will.

Initially, the current corona crisis, forcing us to work from home, was thought to be the necessary brake society had been reluctant to pull. At first, when the lockdown was just announced, professionals mainly warned of increasing cases of burnout caused by the stirring global pandemic. Juggling changing work patterns with childcare was expected to lead to increased pressure, and hence, burnout symptoms. Yet currently, the “break given by the brake” seems to positively affect our work-related burnout symptoms. Even though many workers risk losing jobs or have to work harder than ever before, the lucky ones who still receive a pay check, start to express the relief accompanying empty calendars and the simplicity of the current working days. Because of the crisis, we are learning how easy it is to cancel commitments. People suffering from burnouts often struggle to say no, as everything is perceived to be important. The current crisis teaches us that, yes, we can cancel appointments. Additionally, the newly freed up time in our calendars allows us to think about what is important, and why we work in the first place. We long believed that if we worked even harder we could conquer the world, but does that belief still hold true today? “By changing how we work, we change how we relate to each other and ourselves”.

Moreover, since we are all in this together, the pandemic increases a perception of social cohesion. Naturally, a global pandemic introduces stress sources other than work, the seriousness of which should not be tempered. However, if we maintain higher levels of rest and social cohesion once normal work resumes, then some cases of burnout could decrease. Perhaps our hopeful future will have more people burning brightly instead of burning out.

Bottom Line: Dutch social structure had focused on productivity, which led to more burnouts than seen in other European countries. The current corona crisis, although catastrophic in many aspects, decreased work-related stress for salaried employees  working from home. Simplicity, empty agendas, increased social cohesion and a new look at careerism is expected to decrease burnout rates. Perhaps corona gave Dutch society the break it needed.

* Please help my Economic Growth & Development students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Is corona lighting a fire?”

  1. Hi Fay,
    Really interesting blogpost! I think you highlight a really important issue facing both the Netherlands and Germany, considered the EU export and financial superpowers. Around 2003, the German Social Democrat-led coalition introduced reforms that significantly deregulated labor and reduced social security (Deutsche Welle, 2003). This has made Germany’s producers very competitive and Germany thus has record trade surpluses.

    We trade freedom, free time, social cohesion for wealth derived from productivity. Our countries have stable economies (such as lower debt and low unemployment) and the financial buffer to withstand future shocks. Contrast that to countries that have not sought to become ultra-competitive, such as in the EU’s south, who face high unemployment, high levels of foreign debt and economic stagnation. Naturally, this comparison is oversimplified, but this was the debate that Germany was facing in the early 2000s: work harder and grow economically, or stagnate and face a host of other social problems. Honestly, I don’t think we have a choice; it is work hard at the risk of burnout, or not have work at all.

    Deutsche Welle:

  2. Hey Fay,

    Reading your blogpost was very enjoyable – such a relevant topic!

    First, I was surprised to hear that The Netherlands is particularly problematic when it come to burn-outs. Remarkably, this source stated the opposite: The Netherlands was among the least burned out countries:
    I think the source is more generally concerned with work-related stress than burn-outs per se. It is a bit confusing though, since they do categorize it under burn-outs. I was also thinking that burn-out rates could be underreported in other countries, as The Netherlands does not have as much of a taboo on metal health (but this is all speculation). Perhaps (hopefully) the differences in information might be of use in your essay.

    Second, the current working situation as facilitated by the pandemic indeed offers a lot of insights in how we can reduce stress and subsequent burn-outs. However, I think it is important to distinguish between being able to cancel appointments yourself, versus being forced to cancel appointments/just not having appointments at all. The latter, in which obligations are simply cancelled for people, takes away a lot of the pressure.
    Nonetheless, once the pandemic is over, it is up to people themselves to “take a break” – as a sense of reclaimed agency over their scheduling. In my opinion, people will naturally fall back into their old habits, and continue to operate under the same pre-pandemic Neo-liberal assumptions.
    Neo-liberalism is so ingrained into society that it would be difficult to pursue actual institutional change is such a short time-span. I am afraid that the laissez-faire credo is fairly sticky, especially as the alternatives do not necessarily seem to yield better or more Pareto efficient results…
    So although this might create momentum for society to become more socially cohesive and less burned out, I am skeptical as I would think that things will become business-as-usual once this is all over.

  3. Hi Faye, I found it really interesting that you stated that burnouts are a big problem in the Netherlands in comparison to other EU countries and that this is due to social structure and norms. Coming from South America, I totally agree with you and the idea that in most European cultures (I don’t think it’s just the Netherlands) we trade social cohesion for an imagined idea of success, where we push and compete against each other to the brink of burnout. In Brazil, where I’m from, and I would dare to say most of South America, we have a very different way of operating in society. I notice this difference every time I go visit and return. When I get to Brazil, it’s like everyone is relaxed, friends with and rooting for each other, even though a large part of the population struggles financially and are extremely hardworking. When I return to the Netherlands, I can feel the distance and even sense an air of competition in the air just by the way we interact with each other. The hustle and productivity culture is tangible. And this topic is really interesting to me, because in Brazil, where people are not relatively so well-off financially there seems to be more social cohesion than here. And here, what seems to be lacking in Dutch and other European societies is a lack of recognizing the importance of putting our well being, happiness and connection to each other first. The Corona Crisis may be forcing us to slow our pace, take a needed break and prove beneficial to those who are lucky to still be receiving a paycheck or feel secure financially, improving our overall social cohesion and wellbeing. But I wonder if this will work the opposite ways in countries like Brazil, where social cohesion is strong. In a society that cannot afford to take this break from work, could this crisis backfire on a quality that used to be their strength? What happens when the stress of not being able to work, earn a salary, provide for your family etc. override the peace that comes with taking a break from our daily hustle?

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