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BURNOUT: Belgium Leads the Way

16/10/2014 08:58 BST | Updated 15/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Last time I was in Brussels a therapist told me that those people who work for the big European organisations are ideally placed to get burned out or addicted: "they are overpaid, overworked, often lonely, eating and drinking out most nights and it's no wonder they get exhausted, burnt out and self-medicate with drugs and alcohol."

I'm pretty sure the situation is similar in the City of London where a well-known "coping mechanism" in the financial sector is to snort cocaine at work - using the stimulant to get through the day - and to drink alcohol at night in order to relax.

The researcher who first identified burnout was Dr. Christina Maslach, an American. She also created the "Maslach Burnout Inventory" and co-authored an extraordinary book that described burnout in its economic context -- The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It -- and here is an extract:

"The workplace today is a cold, hostile environment. People are emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted. The daily demands of the job, the family and everything in between erode their energy and enthusiasm. The joy of success and the thrill of achievement are more and more difficult to attain. Dedication and commitment to the job are fading."

The negative impact that burnout has on productivity and health has been known to governments for years, but the only country in the EU to have actually introduced legislation about burnout is Belgium.

From September this year Belgian law requires all organisations on their territory - including the EU institutions located in Brussels - to take measures to prevent burnout such as risk assessments and counselling. Now the European Commission is under pressure to produce similar guidelines for its staff, as well as guidance for the other member states.

"To our knowledge, Belgium is a pioneer," said Dr Patrick Mesters, director of the European Institute for Intervention and Research on Burnout, "it is one of the only countries where burnout is mentioned as forming part of psychosocial risks."

Harry Pomerantz, director of the Community Help Service in Brussels, is one of the few experts who gives a message of hope in this rather grim story: "If a workload is structured according to people's sensitivities, capacities and competences, then you could prevent most burnout cases."

Burnout is a big problem all over the world but governments have a hotchpotch of different approaches and many countries fail to implement their own laws. In an article called Burnout is Everywhere, Margaret Wheeler Johnson quotes the World Health Organisation as saying: "In most countries there is no specific legislation addressing the impact of job stress."

Professor Jonathan Chick, the Medical Director of the rehab clinic for whom I work warns about the unintended consequences of the Belgian legislation: "Employers who are not good people will devise strategies to always be in the right...and adopt scurrilous measures and subtle demeaning techniques which managers get skilled in if they think there will be a legal challenge."

Belgium is leading the way when it comes to legislation on burnout. Let's hope it works out well and the rest of our governments follow do the right thing.