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Stressed-out Swiss too sick to work

Work-related stress disorders are on the rise (Highland Health)

The number of Swiss being signed off work for stress-related reasons has tripled in the past 16 years.

The dramatic increase has prompted the government to consider launching an "anti-stress" website for workers in 2004.

Experts say pressure at work and financial difficulties are largely to blame for the increase in cases.

The number of Swiss claiming invalidity benefit, which is offered by the state to people unable to work due to disability, has rocketed from 23,000 in 1986 to 73,000 in 2002.

Alan Kiener, head of the work and health department at the economics ministry, says the depressed economic situation over the last ten years and fears over job security are largely responsible for the leap in claims.

Research carried out by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs and Swiss psychologists has found that three out of four workers would consult an "anti-stress" website.

It is estimated that work-related stress costs the economy SFr4.2 billion ($3.1 billion) a year.

Workplace woes

Kiener says that successive downturns have made the office a tougher place, citing a recent study in which 26.6 per cent of the working population said they often, or very often, felt stressed.

In addition, bigger workloads, increased travel, competition and bullying all contribute to work-related depression.

Beatrice Breitenmoser, the vice-director of the Federal Social Insurance Office, adds that there are fewer opportunities for those unsuited to today's "pressure-cooker" working environment.

No taboos

Another factor that may be responsible for the three-fold rise in cases is the removal of the taboo surrounding mental illness. As a consequence, doctors are more likely to diagnose people as suffering from depression.

But Kiener refuses to let doctors shoulder the blame. He says doctors who have seen patients in despair and suffering from depression after several years of illness and unemployment have had no other choice but to sign them off work.

Jean-François Novelle, interim director at the invalidity benefit office in Geneva, says that every system is prone to abuse and that's why officials seek several doctors' opinions before any decision is made.

Jean Perdix, an intern at the Medical Clinic at Lausanne University, who carries out psychiatric evaluations, told swissinfo that the patients he sees are mostly suffering from chronic persistent pain, the cause of which is often unknown.

Benefits squeeze

Novelle says that mental health is one of the biggest problems currently facing the invalidity benefit system.

He adds that it is time the authorities took a fresh look at how people affected by mental health problems can be accommodated in the workplace.

The system is currently facing major challenges, the biggest of which is how to cope with the rising number of pensioners.

The invalidity benefit budget is currently indebted to the tune of SFr4.5 million, of which SFr1 million is for 2002.

swissinfo, Pierre-François Besson (translation: Isobel Johnson)

Stress summary

The number of Swiss claiming invalidity insurance for mental health reason has tripled in the last 16 years from 23,000 in 1986 to 73,000 in 2002.

Economic woes and work-related stress have been blamed.

The mental health factor is one of the largest problems currently facing invalidity insurance.

Invalidity benefits funds are currently indebted to the tune of SFr4.5 million, of which SFr1 million alone is for 2002.

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