Author: Maddy Savage
Sweden is famous for championing a balanced lifestyle, but the number of young people being signed off work with severe stress is mushrooming.
This is the first story in our Nordic Way series, that examines life in Scandinavia and beyond.
If you’re aware of global stereotypes about Sweden, working life in the Nordic nation might conjure up images of Scandi-sleek ergonomic offices, numerous breaks for coffee and cinnamon buns (called fika in Swedish), or clocking off early on Fridays to disappear to a lakeside cottage.
While not all workers are afforded such luxuries, figures suggest less than 1% of Swedes work 50 hours a week or more, and citizens are guaranteed at least five weeks’ holiday. There’s a strong culture of flexible working, alongside some of the most generous parental leave and subsidised childcare policies in the world. So it’s not a place you’d imagine finding an exhausted employee struggling to complete workplace tasks or unable to switch off at home.
But the number of people diagnosed with chronic stress-related illnesses – including exhaustion, a condition also referred to as ‘clinical burnout’ – has risen rapidly in recent years. This category of sickness was the most common reason for Swedes to be off work in 2018, according to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, accounting for more than 20% of sickness benefit cases across all age groups.
Rates have shifted dramatically among young workers, with cases up by 144% for 25-29 year-olds since 2013. Women are more likely than men to be off sick with exhaustion – experts say women still spend more time on household chores regardless of whether they have children or not, are over-represented in stressful, care-based jobs such as nursing and social work – but the rise has been noticeable across both genders and in different sectors.
‘A constant high, high, level of stress’
Natali Suonvieri, a 27-year-old based in Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast, is among those affected. She says she “hit the wall” and was signed-off with exhaustion in 2017, while she was working as a marketing manager for a small start-up. Her standard working hours were 0800-1700, though she sometimes worked overtime and checked her emails in the evening.
“I had a constant high, high, level of stress,” she explains. “I was actually on sick leave for more than one year, and for three, four months I was lying in bed in the foetal position, more or less.” She says she still has problems with cognitive issues. “I have trouble with focusing. I have trouble concentrating... trouble remembering stuff.”
While many countries do not formally recognise exhaustion or clinical burnout as a medical condition, it has been a legitimate diagnosis in Sweden since 2003.
Professor Marie Åsberg, a psychiatrist at Karolinska Institute, Sweden’s largest academic medical research centre, explains that it is important to recognise that the condition encompasses much more than the “feeling of being overwhelmed” at work, which is a common reaction during stressful periods that we often refer to as “burnout” and usually subsides when things calm down.
Although the symptoms of clinical burnout can vary, she says they typically include “a chronic ongoing stress”, which might manifest in severe fatigue, anxiety, concentration difficulties and other cognitive disturbances. “Once you develop it, it takes a very long time to recover. If your brain doesn’t function properly, it is terribly difficult to go to work and do a normal job,” she says. Asberg believes recent years have seen “epidemics” of the condition in Sweden.
A Swedish problem?
International comparisons are tricky, because definitions of burnout vary and not all countries recognise the diagnosis. But when it comes to the high figures in Sweden, one argument is that since Swedes were early to formulate a medical diagnosis for the condition, this has helped break down taboos, encouraging more people to come forward and making employers more aware of and accepting of the problem.
“People used to think it was some kind of mumbo jumbo... but the debates about mental health in general and burnout have been more and more common, which also of course increases the tendency to seek help and to talk about it,” explains Selene Cortes, a spokesperson on clinical burnout for Swedish mental health charity Mind.
I was actually on sick leave for more than one year, and for three, four months I was lying in bed in the foetal position, more or less – Natali SuonvieriProfessor Marie Åsberg also points out that Sweden’s generous welfare system plays a role: those who are diagnosed with exhaustion can typically receive approximately 80% of their salary, capped at 774 Swedish krona ($83, £66) per day. “The state pays, so you are not supposed to suffer economically if you are ill,” she explains. “And because of that, the state has created very good databases of people who are on sick leave and why.”
But even if Swedes have a greater tendency or economic ability to seek help, how can we unpack the disconnect between the nation’s short working hours and obsession with work-life balance, and the prevalence of a condition characterised by chronic stress levels?
“I can see why people outside Sweden might have a hard time believing we’re getting burned out, when we have everything served up on a plate,” says Pia Webb, a Swedish life and career coach certified by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.
She believes it is something of a “Swedish problem” that while many people clock off work at 1700 or even earlier and are “very bad at doing nothing”. She argues there is strong social pressure to invest time in “being fit, being busy and looking perfect”, which she believes has increased in recent years.
Swedes work out more than any Europeans other than the Finns, according to a recent Eurobarometer poll, with almost one in three exercising five times a week or more. Although numerous studies have confirmed the benefits of exercise in boosting mental health, Webb argues that there are dangers when it comes to competing in “increasingly tough races and challenges”, or training with the goal of achieving a certain body type. These pressures could help explain why younger people are more frequently succumbing to exhaustion, she says.
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