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Blurred boundary between work, leisure time shown to be stressful

BERLIN -- Not everything was better in the good old days, but some things were certainly simpler. Today there is often no clear boundary between work and leisure time, for instance.

When the workday at grandpa's workplace was over, it generally meant that grandpa's workday was done. Those day are gone. Wolfgang Panter, president of the Association of German Business and Company Doctors, points to “a blurring of the boundary between work and leisure time.” And where there is no boundary, there is no leisure time.

Even politicians have taken up the issue. Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's federal minister of labor and social affairs, recently called for a clear separation of working hours and free time.

Panter said it was helpful in this regard to set clear rules for oneself, such as the times during the weekend when logging on to the company intranet is strictly taboo, and when to switch off the mobile phone in the evening. Checking one's emails shortly before bedtime is not a good idea, he warned. People usually sleep better if they resist the temptation.

Workplace stress is on the rise. According to Germany's Federal Chamber of Psychotherapists, more and more employees in Germany are taking sick leave because of mental health problems, which now account for 12.5 percent of all absences. The number of sick days due to burnout syndrome has seen a particularly sharp rise — from 0.6 days per 100 insured employees in 2004 to nine days in 2011.

Hardly any reliable data exists on the degree to which workplace stress has increased, noted Birgit Koeper, a staff member at Germany's Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. She said the increase in mental stress and mental health problems in the workplace was beyond dispute, but noted that “stress is also a subjective phenomenon.”

While much progress has been made in occupational safety and health, Koeper added, companies have so far done little to prevent the new health risks to their employees.

In Panter's view, one reason for the rise in mental stress is the shortening of the work-week in recent decades. This means that employees have less time to do their jobs, which meanwhile have increased enormously in complexity.

What is more, Panter said, the modern work culture demands constant accessibility — not from all employees, but from a growing number of them. He said he was convinced that bosses who were accustomed to being reachable almost always by phone passed on this behaviour to their subordinates.

Mobile working and having flexible working hours also has advantages, of course, said career coach Svenja Hofert. “That's exactly what many employees want,” she remarked, noting that it was nothing special in the IT industry, for example. “A lot of people there think a 9-to-4 core time is stupid.”

The consequence, however, is more working time, she said. Furthermore, not everyone is adept at self-organization, so working hours can quickly add up and drive out all leisure time.

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