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 :).