The European Voluntary Service can change and enrich your life but it also involves a big change that one should be prepared for. I have to say, I underestimated my move to Germany for my EVS. I am fortunate enough that I have been able to visit and live in some other countries in my life, so I thought the transition would not be a big deal, and did not think much about how it would affect my body and well-being. Here I want to raise awareness about taking care of your body, mentally and physically, and this is even more so important when you change country for a longer period of time and start work in a different environment. It takes time to adapt, and I think it is also important that employers and companies who work with EVS volunteers also know this. I think the EVS focuses more on ‘culture shocks’ during the pre-departure training and handbook than the ‘shocks’ happening to your body.
A new environment will affect your physical and mental well-being.
Sometimes, as in my case, your body is really sensitive to changes. I started my EVS during the winter, and I brought all my thickest winter clothing and still, I was freezing and shivering. My body could not cope easily with the icy winds and humid to dry winter, so my immune system was weakened. I started living with other people and had much more social contact than I was used to. I noticed that I needed a lot of sleep, rest and quiet time at the beginning. I got really ill maybe twice or three times within two months and so did the other newly arrived volunteers. My voluntary work also involved working with young children where it is more common to catch a bug or virus that they carry.
Being ill and feeling guilty
I started to accept that I was getting sick a lot at the beginning, but I did not feel happy about what it meant for my EVS. I was impatient to get better and felt extremely guilty when I could not go to work, especially when I had been given some responsibilities. I also had the feeling that my boss did not always believe me or thought I was getting ill a bit too often. Surely, I worried, it does not leave a good impression to start work and report to be ill soon afterwards? The stress of being ill also meant that I went to work even though I was still feeling feeble, so I did not even give myself the chance to get better and just fell back into illness one week later. My consciousness only felt better when I heard that there had been a virus going around in our workplace so a lot of other colleagues were off sick as well.
We are raised to think that work is more important than our health.
I believe that I could have healed and adapted more easily if I had not felt guilty about being ill. I need to tell myself and want to tell it to others: It is okay to be ill and you should take your time to feel well again. During the EVS, we are lucky that we do not have to worry about losing our job immediately or making enough money to survive. This is sadly the reality for many people who work without a secure contract and cannot afford being ill. However, I hope employers who take on EVS volunteers are more understanding. While talking to an elderly person about it, he told me that in the past, people used to ‘be able to be sick’ whereas nowadays, it is often expected to be fit for work after two or three days of rest. According to the German Federal Office of Statistics, employees took on average 10 days of sickness leave in 2015. From 1991 to 1996, the average was between 12-13 days, and the lowest average (8,1) was in 2007. The reasons for the gradual decrease are said to be generally improved health and less employees working in health-damaging environments (such as manufacturing industries). However it also recorded a tendency of a decrease in sickness leaves during economic recessions as workers worry about losing their income or job. In a study comparing work absence across the European Union, it was found that the number of workers taking sick leave was higher in those countries where sickness benefits were higher and importantly, it was also more accepted in the workplace.
Factors to take into consideration
Whether you start an EVS or a new placement in a different country, there are a lot of factors you can start to become aware and think of in advance. This can help you to anticipate what is going to come and prepare yourself mentally and physically. In regards of the country you are moving to, think of the time of year you are going to start and the weather that you can expect. How do you usually feel at this time of year and season? How will you commute to your workplace? For example, for the past eight or ten years, my main transport was the bicycle so switching to public transport and commuting for sometimes two hours a day was a big change for me. What are your living arrangements? Will your diet change, e.g. due to different climates? Perhaps you have some food requirements that are more difficult to follow in that country? You will also spend a lot of time in your work environment. Perhaps it is in an office, where you will sit long hours in a windowless, dry room or you work in a mentally demanding environment? If you will work with people who require a lot of your focus and attention, can your mind and body cope with this? What do you do to relax afterwards? Or will your work involve close contact with young children where you could easily catch an illness?
Taking care of yourselves
Perhaps I have painted the beginning of the EVS as a sickness-inducing experience, but it is of course very common to get ill during the colder months of the year. If it is all sunshine, then of course, the mood and circumstances will be different! However, I hope that with this article, I can raise awareness of what is perhaps still a taboo and shame in society and in the work environment: Being ill. This does not only mean having a cold or a virus, but can also extend to feeling depressed and anxious. I want to end with some advice that can hopefully alleviate or defer any symptoms of illness:
- Have enough sleep and rest every day.
- Drink a lot. I love and recommend herbal tea, and you can make your own by chopping ginger and lemon. There are a lot of herbs with healing qualities, such as mint, sage, nettle, yarrow, lavender, chamomile etc.
- Take some quiet time for yourself once in a while. Whether that is lying in bed reading a book, wandering in the park or forest, having a bath with essential oils, watching the clouds pass by or sit on a bench or cafe and watch people. This is a good time for your mind to calm down and be less agitated.
- Eat healthy. Your body needs vegetables, proteins, fibers and minerals every day. Do not wait until you are sick to start your ‘healthy eating regime’. A gardener once said that even though organic products can sometimes be expensive, one should eat some organic vegetables at least once a week so the body can store the good nutrients and minerals that industrial vegetables lack or only have little of. Then there are also wild herbs you could pick in the forest that are even for free.
- If you work in an environment where you are more likely to get airborne infections, wash your hands often and dry them thoroughly and hygienically, or use hand sanitizer when it is not possible. Make sure that surfaces are cleaned regularly, such as shared computer keyboards, door knobs, work desks etc.
- If you spend a lot of time in an office or inside a building, make sure you get enough fresh air and sunshine or daylight, especially during dark days. Open the windows once in a while. If you work in a dry environment, a wet towel over the radiator might work as a humidifier, whether the radiator is turned on or off.
- If you do not feel well mentally, there should be an EVS mentor you can talk to. Otherwise, talk to your housemates, friends, other volunteers or working colleagues. Your flatmates can keep an eye on you if you are lying ill in bed. If you feel depressed, anxious or stressed and feel there is no-one to talk to, perhaps talking with a counsellor can be an option. It should be free for you and is either covered with your European Health Insurance Card or with your insurance company, but check anyway beforehand. There are also some free help hotlines you can call and talk to someone confidentially. Otherwise, perhaps there are some local meet-ups you could join. They might be free, whether that is group counselling, or group meetings sharing similar interests.
- If you do catch a cold or an illness, then it is important to keep your body rested. Sleep a lot, eat hot soup with garlic and onion, drink lots of liquids, and don’t agitate your mind. Some swear by eating raw garlic. This is also a good time to spend all that free time keeping a diary and writing down your thoughts.
And last but not least, I hope this does not give the impression that the EVS should be about taking as much rest as possible. After all, there is so much happening and a lot to explore in your new country and work. The EVS is an enriching and challenging experience where you can learn so much about others and about yourself in unique situations. And you encounter much more interesting situations when you are not confined to bed.