Interview with Professor Volker Nürnberg, October 2021

The topic mental health is becoming more and more important for companies

Professor Nürnberg, what is World Mental Health Day, which is celebrated on 10 October?
Volker Nürnberg: World Mental Health Day, which was established by several international initiatives including the World Health Organization (WHO), will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary next year. In Switzerland, many different activities take place in the cantons including various regional alliances against depression. In Germany, health insurance companies, employers and service providers are aware of the initiative and provide digital services. This is the most important day of the year for mental health in Germany and Switzerland.

What’s the current mental health situation in Switzerland, Germany and Austria?
Mental health disorders are of course not only an issue in Switzerland and Germany. They affect all industrial nations. In Switzerland, nearly 20% of missed days can be attributed to mental health disorders. In Austria, the average length of a mental health disorder is around 35 days, and in Germany, it’s usually even longer.  

While this may not sound dramatic, there are a significant number of unreported cases. Many people, especially men, do not seek help from a doctor or therapist. However, even when they do seek help, the problem is often characterised differently, as it is still considered taboo. Many muscular and skeletal disorders are psychosomatic in nature. Skin and intestinal disorders may also have psychological causes. According to my calculations for elipsLife, the de facto number of missed days due to mental health issues is actually twice as high.

Why have mental health disorders dramatically increased?
There are a broad range of causes. Sometimes it’s the result of genetic or familial dispositions. However, there is usually not just one single cause. In many cases, its a mix of professional and personal factors, such as work-related stress and relationships issues, which together can lead to depression. The pandemic and its resulting insecurity, but also general conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are among the causes. This means that not everyone can keep pace with the ever-accelerating economic changes as well as rapidly changing management teams, hardware and software, etc.

What are the consequences?
Mental health disorders are now the primary cause of premature occupational disability in Switzerland and Austria. And in Germany too, mental health and neurological disorders account for 37% of individuals who do not reach retirement age, making it the most common cause. In light of dramatic demographic changes as well as economic pressure on the foundations of the pension system, action is urgently needed. 

What needs to be done?
It’s particularly important to take preventive action early on. That’s why I work exclusively with elipsLife in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, as they support employers and managers with a wide array of solutions to improve employee resilience. 

In Austria, for example, 65% of people say they wouldn’t be able to afford to treat a mental health disorder. That’s why the type of insurance offered by elipsLife is needed. Their holistic Care Management approach relies on preventive strategies to help at-risk employees. Reintegration, attendance management and targeted measures are part of sustainable health management. It’s a win-win situation for both employers and employees.

What does the future hold?
The 10 October is obviously not enough. We need year-round activities. I believe it’s crucial to break the taboo surrounding mental health and for companies to proactively discuss the issue. Acknowledgements of mental health issues by prominent individuals in Switzerland such as Swiss National Council member Natalie Rickli, Tina Umbricht and the rapper Andres Andrekson (aka Stress) are still too few in number. In many realms, it’s still considered taboo. In Germany, Sven Hannawald, who suffered from stress, is now a mental health spokesperson for the federal government. This must change if we want to provide sustainable preventive services to those who need them.

Picture showing Volker Nürnberg
Personal Profile
Professor Volker Nürnberg
Professor Volker Nürnberg is a partner at BDO and teaches at various colleges and universities, including Allensbach Hochschule and the Technical University of Munich.

Interview with Professor Volker Nürnberg