Burnout risks at the ECB: A Short History

Burnout risks at the ECB: A Short History

Agora #90

An overview of the psychosocial risks existing at the ECB, triggered by the imbalance between demands and resources.

This article provides an overview of the psychosocial risks existing at the ECB, triggered by the imbalance between demands and resources. Standard burnout analysis reveals that the burnout risks have reached alarming levels at the ECB and are no longer sustainable. Solutions entail working time reduction and more balance in the employment relation between the ECB and its staff.

When asking our so-called founding fathers who started the ECB twenty-five years ago, they will all describe exciting moments where they had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring the European project one level further and contribute to a better world. This was not exactly a time when ECB staff were counting their hours. Twenty-five years later, colleagues are still very excited about contributing to the European Project and are not counting their hours either. However, according to the latest psychosocial survey [1] one-third of them have been diagnosed as a potential burnout case [2], two-thirds of them show signs of mood disorder, exhaustion, or disengagement, and three quarter reported psychosomatic symptoms (muscle tension, insomnia, problems concentrating at work, headache/migraine, …). Alarmingly, about 6% reported suicidal thoughts or ideas of hurting themselves in the last two weeks of filing the survey.   This situation raises two questions: How did we get there and what can we do about this?


[1] 2021 Staff Committee Wellbeing survey, PSY@Work, September 2021

[2] Based on the passing of the so-called Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI)

How did we get there?

Burnout symptoms are not uncommon in professional populations who care a lot about their mission (teachers, hospital workers, ect). Whereas the indicator is often used in the HR literature as an inverted proxy for engagement, in reality, burnout symptoms often develop within workers who are deeply engaged in their work. More specifically, burnout was initially defined as a syndrome of exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced professional efficacy (see Reis, Xanthopoulou and Tsaousis 2015 [1], reporting on Maslach & Jackson 1981 [2]). Medically, it is essentially a depression that is triggered by an imbalance between job demands and available resources.

The demands placed on ECB staff have been very high from day one. Building a new central bank from scratch was not a negligible project. At the very beginning, such demands could be met by asking colleagues to tap into their existing stock of energy. Most naturally, the energy stock depleted with time, whereas the demands sustained or increased. The question therefore boils down to ascertaining why resources did not grow in line with demands. After all, it should have been in the interest of the institution itself to ensure it is sufficiently endowed so that its operations are not compromised.

[1] D. Reis, D. Xanthopoulou, I. Tsaousis, “Measuring job and academic burnout with the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI): Factorial invariance across samples and countries” Burnout Research, Volume 2, Issue 1, March 2015, Pages 8-18

[2] C. Maslach, S.E. Jackson, “The measurement of experienced burnout”, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2 (2) (1981), pp. 99-113,

ECB´s fundamental governance flaw

To answer this question, we have to go back to the heart of ECB´s governance. While the Maastricht Treaty transferred the monetary policy competence to the European Central Bank, there were strings attached to it, namely that the control of the institution would remain in the hands of the National Central Banks (NCBs) [1].  Each of them would indeed have a share of the capital of the European Central Bank, granting them a corresponding decision-making power over its budget and staffing. Somehow, this compares to a situation where the central entity is controlled by its subsidiaries. Beyond the six members of the ECB´s Executive Board, the ECB Governing Council is composed of the Governors of the National Central Banks whose countries belong to the euro area. Whereas such Governors are expected to keep the interest of the Euro area as a whole in mind – and therefore, that of the ECB – they are de facto also in charge of defending the interest of their own central banks or countries. And here comes a crucial conflict of interests: the more the ECB grows, the more the National Central Banks shrink. In the same vein, NCBs compete with the ECB in the labour market to attract and retain talents. The more positions available at the ECB level, the more competition for them.

Overall, this conflict of interest developed into creating a significant understaffing situation for the ECB, which materialised by the imposition of a headcount cap by President Trichet in 2004, set independently of the ECB´s business needs.  This headcount cap constituted the root of many evils, as business needs continued to grow – and even more so when the financial crisis hit in 2008. The ECB therefore had to find creative ways to overcome the resource limitations. One way was to request ECB staff to perform overtime on a structural basis. Another way was to engage in off-balance-sheet hiring, leading to the exponential growth of non-standard forms of employment such as temporary contracts, agency staff, and consultants, which also had an impact on the increase of psychosocial risks.

IPSO explained these governance flaws and their consequences at length in an open letter sent to NCB Governors in March 2015. The European Court of Auditors also argued along the same lines, when challenging the understaffing of the Banking Supervision in their 2016 report , and the follow-up they made in 2023.

There is however another level of governance flaw that also contributed to the understaffing situation. It relates to the extra-territorial nature of the ECB. According to this, the ECB is not bound by the legal framework of the host country as regards labour law. Instead, the ECB has been granted full legislative power. We are therefore in a situation where the employer is also the legislator. Besides, the lawmakers (that is: our NCB governors) have no democratic accountability towards the citizens that will be bound by their decisions (that is: ECB staff). ECB staff cannot outvote their lawmakers, simply because they are not elected! Governors are not even available to talk to ECB staff representatives – and no provisions exist which would foresee that regular meeting could take place between both parties. In a nutshell, the ECB was granted by the Treaty (drafted by NCB Governors) a joker card that no federation of employers would ever dream of having in Europe. This means that, whenever there is a need to balance the contradicting interests of the employer and the employees, the legislator is by default taking the side of the employer because the legislator and the employer are the same body. On that basis, many of the features of the ECB legal framework do not encompass protections that are normally available to workers at the national level.

This governance flaw was particularly visible when it came to overtime management. Indeed, ECB staff were expected to perform overtime on a structural basis, beyond the working hours foreseen in their contract, and without any form of compensation. The argumentation used at the time was that ECB staff salaries were “all-inclusive” [2] . No system of time measurement was in place. For a staff member willing to challenge this situation, no provision in the Staff Rules was available for them to bring the claim in an internal appeal. The so-called EU Directive on Working Time was in principle binding towards the ECB, but it was not implemented. In any case, the Directive was regulating working time going beyond 48 hours per week on average, but was silent about the obligation to compensate for the overtime performed between the weekly 40 hours foreseen in our contracts and the 48 hours of which the Directive kicked in.


[1] It is worthwhile flagging that the Maastricht Treaty was prepared by the Governors themselves, first in the so-called Committee of Governors and later in the so-called Delors Committee. When looking at the history of the statutes of the European Central Bank, it is therefore not surprising to see that their proposed approach was tiled towards retaining decision-making powers for themselves. This might have been at the time a necessary evil to secure their buy-in. Twenty-five years later, this approach has showed its limit as it essentially plays as a break towards the good functioning of our European institution.

[2] This is the wording used by Ms Tumpel-Gugerell, the Executive Board member in charge of Human Resources between 2003 and 2011.

Steps taken by IPSO

Facing an increasing number of colleagues reporting exhaustion and psychosomatic symptoms, ECB staff representatives tried to find ways to overcome the situation. First of all, IPSO obtained the establishment of a Health & Safety Committee including staff representatives in February 2011. Unfortunately, the setting of the said Committee was weakened by the fact that all health questions were excluded from its mandate. A Regular Dialogue between HR and the Staff Representatives was created to tackle health aspects, but this was merely a forum to exchange views, dominated by HR representatives and without decision-making powers.

Therefore, as a second step, IPSO started to document and quantify the level of overtime and stress in-house – merely doing what the so-called OSHC should have been doing in the first place. The first IPSO workload survey was carried out in June 2012 and revealed that high workload was affecting the health of 2/3 of the staff.

While this survey did have an impact (being even noted by the Bild Zeitung [1]), it did not prove enough for the ECB Executive Board and Governors to change anything to the situation. The efforts to build the business case therefore intensified. The Staff Committee, led by a majority of IPSO representatives, decided to hire a professional company to carry out the first psychosocial risk assessment of ECB´s history.

In 2014, all ECB staff were offered to pass a so-called Maslach Burnout Inventory. The results were very alarming, with one third of the staff being diagnosed as potential burnout candidates, and an additional third suffering from exhaustion symptoms. The level of suicidality was also measured, reaching 4.5% of the respondents. The publication of such figures within the ECB made it difficult for the ECB Executive Board to escape their responsibilities. For the first time again, they were forced to accept a dedicated meeting with the Staff Committee to discuss the figures and talk about the follow-up.

Unfortunately, the outcome of such discussions was still very disappointing. The Executive Board, chaired by Mario Draghi, challenged the methodology followed in the survey or the representativeness of the sample. Some also questioned if the suicidality rate was indeed so worrying in comparative terms. Eventually, the press got to learn about the result, which resulted in important press coverage.

[1] “Burnout Alarm bei den Euro-Rettern”02 February 2012.

At this point in time, the Executive Board could not anymore deny the figures. We hoped that they would have taken action. Instead, they decided to launch their own staff survey, in order to get their own assessment of the situation, possibly hoping they would find a different result. Alas!, the 2015 ECB staff survey filled by 90% of ECB staff conveyed the same message: one-third of ECB staff reported that overtime was seriously damaging their health. Also, on a different note, colleagues heavily complained about favouritism in hiring and promotion, a factor that was also affecting their mental health (see later section).

As nothing was moving, the Staff Committee hired PSY@Work again to perform another edition of their burnout test in the fourth quarter of 2016, this time using the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (an enhanced version of the Maslach Burnout inventory [1]). The results confirmed that the situation has structurally not changed [2]. The Staff Committee also started a campaign to force the implementation of the working time directive and ask for the introduction of time measurement, which was a legal obligation that the ECB still refused to comply to. Another survey on working time and time measurement was launched. A referendum was prepared. Eventually, after months of campaigning, the ECB agreed to negotiate the implementation of a new flexitime system that would offer all ECB staff the possibility to have their overtime compensated in the form of additional days off, the so-called recuperation days. Such a system would be made on a trust-based basis, that is: without measuring working time. Instead, it granted every ECB staff the right to credit their own leave account by additional leave days whenever they happened to work above their contractual hours.

[1] The OLBI is a modified version of the MBI. The main difference is that it only use two dimensions  (exhaustion and disengagement) instead of three (exhaustion, cynism and efficacy). Its scale contains both positive and negative statements, which is expected to lead to better psychometric properties. Is it now the standard which replaced the MBI to measure burnout risks. See Demerouti, E., Bakker, A. B., Vardakou, I., & Kantas, A. (2003). “The convergent validity of two burnout instruments: A multitrait-multimethod analysis. European Journal of Psychological Assessment.”

[2] More precisely, the tests revealed a reduction in burnout levels. This reduction was however only the results of a change of the workforce composition due to the establishment of the Banking Supervision. At this occasion, the ECB workforce doubled in size to include newcomers which were on average 10 years younger than staff working in the central banks and had also less seniority in the ECB, having started two years ago only. Once comparing the two survey with the same perimeter, the situation was essentially unchanged.

In that regard, it is interesting to note that the intellectual debate has shifted. When the discussion started in 2010, the ECB was reluctant to implement time measurement out of fear that it would reveal the amount of overtime and force their compensation. Eight years later, after an intense campaign in favour of time measurement, the ECB became worried about the cultural impact that time measurement could have on ECB staff behaviour. They therefore decided to grant overtime compensation for the sake of avoiding the introduction of time measurement![1]

A deal was made, however, that working time would be regularly measured at the aggregate level via regular surveys, to monitor the effectiveness of the new measures. Interestingly, we could capture the positive impact of the new measures, as the stress level captured by the ECB staff survey launched in 2018 declined by 4 ppt compared with 2015. Nevertheless, there was a need to further encourage the use of recuperation days, because colleagues were still reluctant to use them, sometimes because they were discouraged by their local management to do so. Overall, survey data since that date show that about 10% of overtime is performed, but only 10% of this overtime is claimed back as recuperation days.

[1] It is also interesting to note that time measurement was initially meant as a managerial tool to ensure control over workers. This caters for situations where workers do not have an intrinsic interest in the work they do, for instance workers performing repeating tasks in a factory line. However, in an environment where workers have an intrinsic motivation to perform their task, time measurement is not anymore a tool to exert control over them but rather to protect them about themselves and organisational incentives to go beyond what is stipulated in the contracts as a way to progress in their career. In this environment, the nature of the health & safety risks is changing, with less emphasis on physical safety and more emphasis on mental health.

Impact of the pandemic

Whereas the introduction of time compensation improved the situation, the pandemic breakthrough unfortunately jeopardized most of the gains made.  The first COVID survey made by IPSO in March 2020 revealed an increased level of anxiety and exhaustion generated both by the health concerns related to the virus, the impact of isolation on mental health, and the extra burden of having to combine homeschooling/childminding with a full time-job performed from home. Another survey made in June 2020 revealed a high level of fatigue for one-third of the colleagues. The fatigue was particularly strong within the middle management – 41% of them reporting high fatigue – as they struggled to perform their coordinating role in the new remote working environment, on top of their other duties (many of them are also fathers and mothers). While staff expressed their appreciation towards the ECB for its management of the pandemic, and the efforts made to accommodate people´s needs, it is only in the second step that efforts were made to reduce workload via a reprioritisation of tasks. Also, the standstill of the international labour markets created a lot of anxiety among the temporary segment of the ECB workforce (roughly half of the staff), as well as with managers who had to request numerous exceptional contractual extensions to keep their businesses operating.

The situation as of today and root causes identification

This is the context in which the Staff Committee launched a third edition of its wellbeing survey, together with PSY@Work, which included not only the OLBI questionnaire but additional questions aiming at identifying the root causes behind the burnout symptoms. The high workload was one important factor. It is in fact striking to see that burnout diagnostics increase with working time, specifically when the 48 weekly hours threshold foreseen by the EU Directive is breached (see figure 4)

This third edition however brought further insights into other root causes. Splitting the sample of respondents between the “burnout” sample and the “healthy” sample, we could differentiate the factors that were either prevalent in the population at risk of burnout or substantially deviating from the “healthy” population (see figure 5). This analysis showed that, besides working time and workload, ECB staff suffered from unequal treatment and lack of equal opportunities in hiring and promotion, poor leadership practices, and inappropriate behaviors. These findings were consistent with the survey made by the ECB in 2018, which revealed that 14% of ECB staff reported having suffered from harassment and that a large majority of them also felt that knowing the right people mattered more than performing their job well to progress in their career.

It is worth emphasizing the link between burnout and factors not connected to long working hours. In fact, a high workload might not necessarily be an issue whenever the worker enjoys his/her work and has sufficient resources to cope with the demands. Among the resources, factors like having sufficient autonomy over one´s tasks and working schedule, or receiving professional recognition for the work done, play a role. Work is not bound to lead to alienation but can also be a factor in personal development. A virtuous circle can exist between workload, performance, recognition and personal development, which benefits the worker and the company. However, when workers feel that their hard work is having little impact on their own condition, because it is not recognised by their management, because someone else took the credit for the work they did or because promotions are not granted based on merit but on other factors such as personal ties, this is damaging their morale. The longer the situation lasts, the more there is a disconnect between the efforts and the rewards, and the higher the risk that burnout is triggered. This is essentially what is captured by our root cause analysis. It is also very striking that this agnostic analysis, which let the survey results speak for themselves, is matching our own experience as staff representatives. Colleagues who approach us in a situation of burnout do not only mention the high workload but also share the suffering from the lack of professional recognition or the way they were treated which was challenging their own dignity as human beings.

As a common root cause of all these factors, we find the fundamental governance flaw mentioned earlier. The high level of concentration of power within the ECB, and the corresponding absence of adequate checks and balances, is having widespread implications in many ECB processes. This touches upon time management, the fairness of the performance management and the career system, the high power granted to managers upon their staff and the lack of effective appeal systems which could give hope to colleagues to seek redress when unfairly treated. To address such root causes, it is necessary for the ECB to accept sharing the power with the staff and their representatives.

Such results were shared with the staff and of course also with President Lagarde and ECB´s Executive Board. However, we observed a similar reaction as in the first edition of our well-being survey. The representativeness of our findings was questioned, no action was taken, and the ECB felt the need to launch its own surveys possibly hoping to find different results (as they waited for the end of the pandemic to launch it). This management-led survey was eventually launched in April 2023 and inevitably found the same results as ours:  35% reported that their work-life was having a detrimental impact on their mental health, 40% reported that their workload was not manageable within their contractual hours and the same figure reporting having been often or always stressed during the past month. 17% reported suffering from humiliating behaviours, being shouted a, etc. 30% reported their feeling of having been discriminated against or equally treated, 45% said others were taking credit for the work they did. There was a general lack of trust in ECB´s determination to follow-up on this survey, including 77% not trusting HR senior management.[1]  The fact that, contrary to the approach previously followed, the ECB opted for not disclosing the Business Area results to the ECB at large did not reinforce staff trust.

[1] J.Treeck, POLITICO, “ECB riddled with aggressive, degrading, humiliating talk, internal poll finds”  Jul 10, 2023

Priorities for the future

In that context, after achieving some positive results regarding the new teleworking framework applicable at the ECB, which was an important demand for many colleagues, IPSO redefined its priorities. We want the ECB to seriously follow-up on the findings of the most recent psychosocial risks assessment. The follow-up needs include, in our view:

  1. Working time reduction, including the exploration of a 4 day working week
  2. The establishment of a fair career system where all ECB staff can progress based on a mix of seniority and performance.
  3. The establishment of people-management indicators so that managers´ careers are made dependent on their performance as people-managers (rather than based on their divisional output only)
  4. The sharing of power with the staff and their representatives, including in the treatment of dignity at work case, to circumvent existing abuses of power and prevent future ones

In IPSO´s experience, in an environment where the employer is enjoying exceptionally large power and faces little accountability, a lot of effort is required to bring positive change. Nevertheless, experience also showed us that with stamina and persistence, we can make change happen. You can support us in our efforts by joining IPSO as a member and participating in the initiatives we will launch to call for change.

Carlos Bowles

About The Author

Carlos Bowles a rejoint la BCE en tant que prévisionniste macroéconomique en 2003. Il a obtenu son doctorat en économie à l’Institut Universitaire Européen de Florence. Il préside actuellement le comité du personnel de la BCE et occupe également la fonction de vice-président d’IPSO. Cet article est rédigé en sa capacité de représentant syndical