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Europe Tuesday, 19 December, 2000, 14:33 GMT
Stressed out in Sweden
Stockholm
Stockholm: Not sleepy nowadays
By Rosie Goldsmith

I thought I was well prepared for a programme on the problems of stress among Sweden's high-tech workers. But I was in for a shock.

Click here listen to this programme in full

In Stockholm I found a city that had changed from the rather sleepy, isolated place I had visited only five years ago, where everyone wore suits and worked nine-to-five in the public sector, to a global hothouse whose workforce never sleeps.

map of Sweden
Sweden
Per head, Stockholm today has more internet businesses, more people online and more people working in the industry than any other European city.

Over half of young people leaving university want to work in the new media or high-tech fields.

Young casualties

Why am I shocked? Many of these young Swedes are not only stressed, they're burned out.

Everybody is talking about it. A TV feature on a woman who seems to have died from burnout was aired the evening I arrived. Change has happened so quickly in Sweden. Young people, although driving Sweden's incredibly successful economy, are casualties of that change.

In Britain, two-thirds of people, on average, complain of stress at some time and our symptoms range from headaches to heart attacks. In the UK we work the longest hours in Europe.

The Swedes, on the other hand, have been used to socialist-driven, cradle-to-grave welfare for decades.

But Sweden's new high-tech companies usually do not belong to the public sector and do not have unions or statutory workers' rights.

Torbjorn Levin
Torbjorn Levin - victim of burnout
Torbjorn Levin is a tall, handsome Swede who talks winningly about listening to your inner soul and making time for the spirit.

We sit by the fire and drink tea and he gives me a master class in relaxation. And he is an expert - through bitter experience: he burned out. He ran his own company and worked on average 50-70 hours a week, often at weekends. He describes his burnout like this: "I felt empty. My personality had gone. I was gone from myself."

I felt empty. My personality had gone. I was gone from myself.

Torbjorn Levin
Torbjorn stopped work immediately and went to his parents' home and "slept for three months." Today he is working again but differently: "I take it one day at a time. I question WHY I do things. I set lower goals. In Sweden people are running too much."

Losing control

I went to visit one of the country's leading experts on stress, Professor Alexander Perski, at the world-famous Karolinska Institute, the Medical University in Stockholm.

He runs a burnout clinic, which researches and treats the syndrome. Swedes, he says, have never been used to this high octane work ethic - there's a feeling that they're losing control over their own lives. All the old securities are going.

Professor Alexander Perski
Professor Alexander Perski treats burn-out
He explains that they live in an isolationist culture; Swedes do not have the warm, extended family network of, say, the Italians, so if there are problems they are left on their own; more and more people live alone and they don't share their worries easily. He treats his patients with a mixture of orthodox medicine, psychotherapy and complementary medicine.

Financial costs

But stress doesn't just affect the productivity of the workforce, it also creates enormous costs.

You are also responsible for your own health

Social Affairs Minister Ingela Thalen
Over the last two years sick leave has doubled in Sweden and the costs to the government and the health and social services have exploded. This has so worried the Social Affairs Minister, Ingela Thalen, that she set up a working group of four Cabinet ministers to tackle burn-out.

She reminds me that change in Sweden has most affected the public sector - the nurses, doctors, teachers and so on - but she is worried about the private sector where people are so "driven".

Minister Ingela Thalen
Minister Ingela Thalen: Concerned about the cost to the state
Yes, the government is investing more money in research and support, she says. Yes, there are education campaigns and yes, she tries to raise awareness personally by writing articles in local papers and by visiting people at their workplace.

But in the end, she says, solutions are also up to the individual and of course the individual company. "You", she says, looking at me hard, "are also responsible for your own health."

The six-hour day

It helps though when you've got a caring, sharing workplace.

My final stop was the top of Stockholm's tallest building where an innovative and inspiring boss has come up with a brilliant idea to stop the long-hour culture - which is of course the main problem.

His name is Jurgen Lerjestad and his company is called "Peak 6 Communications". ("Peak performance", "at the peak of the building" - I'm sure you get it).

The idea is this: you only work six hours a day, although sometimes more on one day, less the next. You then have time to have a real life outside - at home with the kids, leisure pursuits, DIY. When you're at work you focus only on work - no long phone calls to the boyfriend or bank. "Peak 6" has only about 20 workers but it is famous throughout Sweden because Jurgen's idea has worked.

His staff have not been sick, they are more productive and motivated and staff turnover is very low. They earn a full salary and their clients are happier because they are billed for shorter days too.

Now all I had to do was return to my office and convince my boss to let us work six hours a day. But somehow I think this just may not work for journalists!

Rosie Goldsmith presented this edition of Crossing Continents. Also in this edition: how Sweden is struggling to limit domestic violence, and a look at the principles behind the famous Swedish love of modern design.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Lars Strannegard talking about boom of Internet
'internet anthropologist', describes Sweden's internet boom: "an era of entrepreneurship."
CC - SWEDEN
of company OM: "almost every company says employees are their valuable asset."
talking about burnout
talks about the limits to endurance: "I needed help desparately."
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See also:

02 Nov 99 | Education
10 Feb 00 | Talking Point
31 Mar 99 | Business
01 Nov 00 | UK
28 Sep 00 | Europe
25 Sep 00 | Europe
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